How Russian pilots took tea with a Duke, writes RICHARD PENDLEBURY

The Soviet squadron in the heart of Britain: How a group of diehard Russian pilots came to train in the country they’d been taught to despise… and even took tea with a Duke, writes RICHARD PENDLEBURY

His Grace the 6th Duke of Montrose was hosting a squadron of airmen at a discreet afternoon tea in Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh. His guests were all crack frontline pilots who had flown against the Nazis in some of the most dangerous operations of the war.

Yet while their new uniforms had been made by the best tailor – a Mr Novak – in the nearby city of Dundee, there was something alien about their appearance and conversation.

Nor were they the only unusual aspects about this gathering on May 9, 1943. The pilots’ very presence in the United Kingdom was – and remained – top secret.

Though their flying duties would take them from Scotland to the Channel coast, no newspaper was allowed to report on them. The mission which had brought them to Britain was a diplomatic and military hot potato. This was because the flyers were all members of the Soviet Air Force.

A few years earlier, thousands of their fellow officers had been purged – executed or sent to gulags – on the orders of Joseph Stalin, for suspected bourgeois or Western democratic sympathies.

RICHARD PENDLEBURY: Surviving photographs show British and Soviet soldiers playing chess and arm-wrestling at Errol, Scotland. They also walked in the nearby woods, where they picked wild mushrooms to cook, which reminded them of home (pictured, 1943)

Now a hand-picked few were being pitched into the very bosom of reactionary capitalism, entertained at a royal palace by His Majesty King George VI’s representative at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

For both the British and Russians, it was a case of needs must in a war of national survival. But from necessity also grew mutual respect.

The ducal tea and scones was but one episode in the wonderfully quixotic and often harrowing adventures of the only Soviet pilots to serve in Britain – or anywhere else – in a Royal Air Force unit.

The current coronavirus lockdown prevented their long-untold story being celebrated as planned on May 8 on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, in a ceremony at the village of Errol, near Perth.

An obelisk is waiting to be shipped from Russia to become a permanent memorial beside Errol’s parish church. The huge stone, mined in Russia’s north-western region of Karelia, is of the same vibrant crimson quartzite which was used for the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier in the wall of Moscow’s  Kremlin and Napoleon’s mausoleum in Paris. Largely unsculpted, the rock will look like a Soviet meteorite which has landed in a rural corner of Great Britain.

I have had a part in that falling to earth because the rock’s trajectory began at my Christmas dinner table in London in 2013, as I shall explain.

It passed through the national archives in both London and Moscow and eventually took me, at last, to the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea.

But who were the young Soviets who came so far to train alongside our own flyers?

One of the most celebrated was Peter Kolesnikov. His journey to Holyrood Palace began in the small southern Russian village of Mitrofanovka, where he was born in 1906. After the Communist revolution, the peasant farmer’s son was picked to train as a pilot and by the start of World War II he had become  one of the country’s leading civil aviators. 

When Hitler invaded in June 1941, the veteran Kolesnikov was co-opted into the air force and sent to a special operations transport unit named the Moscow Air Group. 

They flew Soviet-built versions of American-designed Douglas DC-3 aircraft – a propeller driven airliner.

The first year of the war with Germany was an almost unmitigated military disaster for the Soviet Union. The Air Group experts took part in several major operations, flying deep behind enemy lines; usually at night and in aid of lost causes.

RICHARD PENDLEBURY: This is the the Armstrong Whitworth Albermarle, the airplane that the Soviet airman were trained on at RAF Errol, circa 1943

By late 1941, the Soviets’ second city Leningrad (now St Petersburg) was encircled and the starving citizens had been reduced to a daily bread ration of 125 grams.

The only way to resupply or evacuate was by air. This task was performed by Captain Kolesnikov and his comrades, running the gauntlet of heavy ground fire and Luftwaffe fighters.

The flyers were also witness to the failed Soviet counter-offensive of January 1942, in which they dropped thousands of parachute troops behind the German lines.

The air unit’s planes were then sent south to help Crimea, where another epic disaster was unfolding. Sevastopol was about to fall to the Germans, with thousands of Soviet troops and civilians trapped with their backs to the sea.

On the evening of June 21, 1942, Kolesnikov took off with a first load of two tons of ammunition, later returning to land under direct German artillery fire. Over ten nights, the Air Group delivered 218 tons of ammunition and food, and evacuated 2,162 wounded. 

Shamefully, among those flown out of the perimeter was Sevastopol’s Soviet commander and his staff, leaving the rest to perish or be taken prisoner.

Air losses also soared, and by the autumn of 1942 the Soviet shortage of transport aircraft was acute. The Kremlin turned for help to its wartime ally Great Britain.

Yet our situation was hardly less desperate. All that could be offered to the Russians were 100 examples of a new plane called the Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle. Alas it was the Austin Allegro of the skies. A ‘failed bomber’, the Albemarle had been built using parts from various existing aircraft. 

‘No wonder they were giving them away to the Russians,’ reported the Battle of Britain ace Tom Neil DSO and Bar, who took one on a terrifying test flight. 

The Albemarle would make do and mend as a Moscow Air Group transport.

There was another caveat: the RAF would not spare its own pilots to fly the planes east and train the Russians. So the Russians would have to come to the UK and, once trained, fly the planes back.

On December 7, 1942, the Soviet Defence Committee issued a decree. A top-secret joint allied operation would be launched. The specially selected Soviet crews were to be based at a remote RAF station – Errol – and collectively known as 305 Ferrying Training Unit, Royal Air Force. The Soviets were flying for the King.

In March 1943, a four-engine PE-8 bomber arrived at Prestwick airfield from Moscow carrying 20 airmen, including Captain Kolesnikov and the Air Group’s commander, Colonel Veniamin Korotkov.

On landing, they were taken by train across country to Bristol to learn about the Hercules engines which would power their new aircraft. After an outing to Cheddar Gorge, they returned to Errol to start their conversion onto the Albemarle.

What’s so fascinating about their story is not so much the flying, but the interaction these Soviets had with a country whose values they had been taught to despise. Off duty, they were sent on ‘cultural breaks’.

One such was to Blair Castle, home of the Duke of Atholl; another to a Scottish cup final at Hampden Park in Glasgow between Rangers and Falkirk.

Captain Kolesnikov particularly liked Edinburgh and took home several postcards, including one of Princes Street upon which he had written ‘second in beauty after Nevsky Prospekt’ (a boulevard in Leningrad).

Surviving photographs show them playing chess and arm-wrestling at Errol. They also walked in the nearby woods, where they picked wild mushrooms to cook, which reminded them of home.

A WAAF servicewoman recalled how she’d been tasked to make their guests borscht – the beetroot soup that is a Russian staple. They also saw how Britain was fighting the war.

Pictured: Soviet Pilot Petr Kolesnikov, courtesy of Anna Belorusova

On June 10, 1943, 13 Russians took a train from Errol to the city of York, still badly scarred by Luftwaffe raids the previous year.

At the train station they were met by officers of Bomber Command and driven to RAF Linton-on-Ouse. There they witnessed the preparation for a heavy night raid on the German city of Dusseldorf by 36 Halifax bombers. The Russians were present at the crew briefings and watched the bombers take off into the dusk, admiring the precision with which they left at one-minute intervals.

Later Colonel Korotkov would write movingly of the experience: ‘One could see that most of the flying personnel are young men who graduated from flying school in wartime… The morale before the raid was very good. No agitation or nervousness can be detected. Everybody was walking out to the mission absolutely calmly.’

Four of these Halifax crews would not return from the raid.

The Russians, too, suffered their tragedies. An Albemarle crashed on a training flight near the village of Fearnan, killing all four on board, including the unit’s Czech cook who was a passenger. An early attempt,  meanwhile, to ferry an Albemarle to Moscow via Scandinavia ended when it was shot down over Norway by a German night fighter.

This prompted the Allies to look for a southerly ferry route, via the Mediterranean. So the Soviet crews left Scotland for a new base at RAF Hurn near Bournemouth. 

On July 15, they performed a Russian folk dance at a ‘Wings for Victory’ fundraising event for the RAF, which was deemed a great success. So much for secrecy!

But for some reason the southern route was cancelled. The Russians returned to Errol where they spent Christmas 1943. A special Russian menu was produced and the station’s operations record noted the ‘joyful atmosphere of brotherhood’ between the British and Russian airmen.

The great irony in this tale is that the modest Albemarle was never to reach Russia. The tide of war had turned in the Allies’ favour, and large numbers of a superior transport plane called the C-47 were being sent from America directly to Russia via Alaska.

Thus the order came for the RAF’s secret squadron of Russians to be returned ‘home’. By the end of April 1944 they were gone, taking with them a single De Havilland Mosquito, a fighter bomber of infinitely greater potency than the Albemarle.

When he reached Moscow, Colonel Korotkov wrote a special report for his superiors. One wonders how well it went down, being almost a hymn of praise to the RAF.

He said: ‘Their attitude to work is extremely serious. They work methodically with no unnecessary haste, paying attention to every tiny detail. As a result, the quality of work as a rule is good.

‘The attitude to each other is polite. They are always trying to help each other. Respect to the others at work is highly developed. Professional arrogance is non-existent.’

For decades after the war, the airmen’s story remained secret. Then, at that Christmas dinner seven years ago, I found myself sitting next to a family friend from St Petersburg named Anna Belorusova. She is the granddaughter of Captain Kolesnikov, the pilot who made a home in Britain for several months with his Soviet buddies.

She told me she was intrigued by her grandfather’s wartime service – though she had never known him because he had died of a stroke in 1948. Anna’s mother only had the vaguest childhood memories of stories of her father going to ‘collect planes from the English king’ and returning with chocolates and a sack of white flour.

The family still possessed a number of unexplained postcards and menus from Great Britain. Anna had also first learned English using four grammar books which contained cartoons from the satirical magazine Punch and a written inscription in English: ‘Good luck and may you visit England again under better conditions. England & Russia…..V (for victory)!’

What did this memorabilia indicate? My own grandfather was a wartime service RAF officer and I had an interest in the subject. So together we decided to dig into the past. Anna showed me some old maps of the UK marked with her grandfather’s Russian annotations.

The airfields of Hurn – XEPH in Cyrillic – then Errol were identified. The first steps on the trail had been uncovered.

Today, Anna’s diligent work in archives in Britain and Moscow has uncovered the full, fascinating picture. As a result of her efforts there has been a permanent exhibition at Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre, on the site of the UK’s oldest military airbase.

She has also produced a book on the whole saga, published only in Russian for the moment. Anna says she wants the stone at Errol to be a symbol of ‘peace and friendship’ at a time when Anglo-Russian relations have been tense.

This was a message I heard repeated in the military museum at Sevastopol when I visited recently for the launch of the book. The audience included an admiral and sailors of the Black Sea Fleet, the colonel in command of a local naval aviation regiment and two other descendants of the RAF’s Russians.

Colonel Nikolai Musienko is the director of Sevastopol’s military museums. An artillery veteran of one Afghan and two Chechen wars, he declared: ‘Anyone who has fought in a war will know that war is terrible. We who have fought are the strongest opponents of any future war.’

As I left, a veteran of the Black Sea Fleet, Commodore Vladimir Kluev, gripped my hand and said with passion: ‘The knot which was tied by our countries’ friendship in the War will never be undone by today’s politicians. Never!

‘They come and go, but our shared history will remain.’

That history, until recently buried, includes the touching story of the RAF and their Russian comrades.

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