French-designed Farman 30 biplane bomber as flown by the Makhnovists, built under license in Berdyansk
Artillery car of the Revolutionary Insurgent Division - Makhnovist armoured train, the Terrible
The RPD’s [Revolutionary Insurgent Division's] transformation from a Black Guard guerrilla unit into a specialised modern military formation was complete – and this was the “Black Army” that liberated the Azov Sea port of Berdyansk on 15 March 1919, complete with an aircraft factory where the remains of five Farman 30 biplanes sabotaged by the Whites were cannibalised by the Makhnovists to make one complete aircraft – the RPD’s sole operational combat aeroplane, armed with a machine-gun and capable of carrying several small bombs. In their groundbreaking study of the city of Berdyansk under Makhnovist control, Ukrainian historians Vladimir Chop and Igor Liman note that the RPD aircraft was soon flown against enemy forces in taking another Azov port, that of Mariupol, on 29 March: “The plane took part in the capture by the Makhnovists of Mariupol, from March 28 to 29, 1919; the Farman-30 had a sufficient supply of fuel to fly from Berdyansk to Mariupol and to return. In addition to conducting intelligence, the airplane threw bombs on the territory of the Mariupol port, focused on enemy artillery. In addition to the White Guards, there were also troops of French interventionists and Czechoslovak legionnaires.” The Makhnovist capture of the Azov ports lead to the seizure of enormous quantities of ammunition and equipment from the fleeing Whites, while the 2nd Brigade of the Zanoprovsky Division under former Tsarist officer Nikofor Grigorev liberated Odessa. The Farman 30 was used to dramatic effect once more on 31 March when Makhno, uncovering a Boslhevik-sponsored plot to assassinate him, was flown in the plane from Berdyansk to Gulyai-Polye in two and a half hours, roused a local Makhnovist unit which captured the plotters and shot them immediately. Chop and Liman write, however, that “Makhnovists would [in the future] be able to capture airplanes several times as trophies. But, in the absence of skilled pilots and fuel, they would never rise into the air.”
Chop and Liman describe the taking of Berdyansk in great detail. [This includes the establishment of a free soviet there, but I have extracted this section for the purposes of this post] Chop and Liman stress: “The role of Berdyansk in the history of Makhno is unique. The city was extremely important for the Makhno republic, ‘a free homeland of anarchy’. It was the only complete port of this political formation, the city where the navy and air forces of the Makhno movement first began to form. It was in Berdyansk that for the first time, in full swing, the Makhno and Bolshevik ambitions and elites were in competition for the city center. But this is not the main thing. Berdyansk was the longest of all the cities of Ukraine and Russia under the control of the Makhno rebels. Six times they were in combat, then bloodlessly seized the city and managed it for a long time, carrying out measures of its internal policy. For the first time – in March - June 1919, the second time – in October - November 1919, the third time – in December 1919, the fourth – in November 1920, the fifth – in December 1920, and, finally, in the sixth – in January 1921.”
Chop and Liman write that even though the Whites had evacuated the bourgeoisie from Berdyansk on the last available gunboat and steamer, leaving the port with no vessels of any size or fighting capacity, at some point, the RPD commander Seymon Karetnik acquired a steamer (possibly at Mariupol) which his men used to ply between Mariupol and Berdyansk; the Makhnvists now had the core of their own tiny navy, crewed by sailors sympathetic to the revolution, likely including members of the famous Odessa-based anarcho-syndicalist Union of Black Sea Sailors; the RPD later acquired a fleet of tugboats too – but this requires further research: “In addition to the [White naval] Azov detachment, in the sea also swam British and French warships. Just at Mariupol, there were French gunboats and destroyers. They were in talks with the Makhno delegation regarding the fate of coal stored in the Mariupol port. And, at the very height of these negotiations, S. Karetnik's steamer under a black flag broke through the line of French ships. The command of the latter was rather angry. The violent actions of the Karetnik ship seemed to disgrace the French tricolor. The French even demanded to give them the Berdyansk steamer, but the Makhnovists categorically refused to do so. However, travelling back and forth from the port of Mariupol, the steamboat was not released to the French.” This amusing event reveals firstly that the Makhnovist vessel was probably a civilian craft – else Chop and Liman would have called it a gunboat or somesuch – though doubtlessly, it was weaponised with makeshift armament like artillery and machine-guns, and then that in the fluidity and chaos of the Civil War some highly unusual situations could develop, as with the French forces trying to beg coal off the Makhnovists who had just expelled them from the port. Vasily Kurylenko, who had joined the Makhnovists at the end of 1918 after serving after the outbreak of the Revolution as the head of the Yekaterinoslav Military Bureau, was installed as Mariupol’s military chief. He was awarded the Order of the Red Banner by the Bolsheviks for his actions in a string of six battles that included taking Berdyansk and Mariupol, and his 1st Novospasivsky Detachment garrisoned the city.
The RPD's 1st Novospasivsky Detachment poses for the camera with its black flag flying.