By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Russia, Germany, and Poland 1917-1945 Part Eight

From Berlin, the memo came:

Between 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock this morning, French Aerial forces . . . have thrown hundreds of tons of explosive, incendiary, and poison bombs on the cities of Köln, Bonn, Koblenz, Bingen, Mainz, Worms, Mannheim, and Speyer. Damage to persons and buildings is incalculable; thousands of citizens, aged people, women, and children have been killed or lie dying. The German government has ordered its Independent Air Force to act in reprisal.1

This passage appears in a 1925 science fiction novel called The Command of the Air, written by Giulio Douhet. Douhet, an Italian general who was also one of the foremost airpower strategists of the interwar period, speculated that future warfare would be determined entirely in the air through the strategic bombing of civilians.2 In Douhet’s fictional account of a future war between France and Germany, intense and brutal air warfare provided a decisive conclusion to the conflict in only forty-eight hours. He wrote, “Airpower makes it possible not only to make high-explosive bombing raids over any sector of the enemy’s territory but also to ravage his whole country by chemical and bacteriological warfare.” He also argued that the shortness of the conflict rendered its means - the mass gassing of women and children -moral.

Even as gases deployed during the First World War grew more effective, dispersal methods lagged. In the early phases of chemical usage, German chemical battalions had simply waited for a wind of the requisite strength and direction and opened valves on large gas canisters. As the war progressed, both sides used gas-filled artillery shells, which came with their own technical issues. Toward the end of the war, seeking a better deployment method, the Allies filled train cars with chemical agents, accelerated the train toward the front at top speed, and then opened the chemical valves as the train decelerated, creating a cloud would drift across the German lines.3 All of these methods were imprecise and risked endangering one’s own troops.

Veterans of the chemical battalions in the First World War believed that there was great potential in deploying chemical agents by air. British scientists at their Porton Down research facility had tested chemical “aero-bombs” in 1918, but they were not used during the war. And, according to internal reports, the Red Army had used chemical weapons in conjunction with aviation at least once during the Russian Civil War.4 Soviet intelligence also recorded that the Germans had begun developing a phosgene air bomb in 1918, but it was never deployed in combat.5 Chemical aviation, as Soviet and German theorists termed it, seemed to be the future of warfare. However, whether chemical weapons could be effectively used in conjunction with mobile, offensive operations, or strategic bombing remained to be seen. This was an area assigned high priority by General Seeckt, who hoped to learn whether chemical aviation would work in conjunction with a future war of movement or not.6

The theoretical basis for chemical aviation came from several sources,7 including in the United States, where findings were (more or less) public.8 General Amos Fries, the second head of the US Chemical Warfare Service, had written in a book in 1920 in which he argued that chemical weapons “will be used in the future by the Air Service, and probably on a large scale.”9 The following year, Army Air Force General Billy Mitchellk,  the United States’ best-known and most influential proponent of airpower between the wars, had testified before Congress that “the combination of chemical weapons and aircraft could effectively ‘kill every inhabitant of New York City.”10 He followed up this pronouncement with a public display. On September 23, 1923, Mitchell organized a trial attack against the derelict USS Alabama using white phosphorus bombs.11

In a 1925 article, “Chemical Air Force Experiences,” which appeared in the Soviet military journal Voina i Tekhnika, Fishman wrote glowingly of “the American bombing experiment on the battleship Alabama.”12 He noted that the Americans had dropped a phosphorus bomb combined with a lachrymatory agent, noting that “its effect was such that the ‘experts’ could not board the ship for up to 45 minutes after the bombing of the ship without gas masks.”13 He concluded his article with the note that “modern chemical weapons provide tremendous power when fully utilized with effective aviation.”14 Under the terms of Versailles, the Reichswehr was barred from pursuing chemical weapons research or manufacturing and allowed only limited facilities for a gas mask and respiratory equipment production. Its official chemical weapons program in 1925 was very small, comprising three facilities at Spandau, Kummersdorf, and a Gasschutzschule (poison gas defense school) near Berlin.15 As a result, the Reichswehr relied upon an underground network of corporate and university partners for banned research and development.16 At the beginning of 1925, the Waffenamt organized this network by forming a “Council of Scientific Workers” on chemical defense.17 This group included senior faculty from five universities, two government bureaus, and a corporate representative from Auergesellschaft, a firm specializing in the procurement and production of poisonous chemicals and radioactive materials.18 When not assisting the German military in illegal rearmament activities, the unconventional Auer firm became well known as a purveyor of a radioactive toothpaste called Doramad guaranteed to make customers’ teeth sparkle. In 1934, the Reich would force Auer’s Jewish owner to sell the firm to chemical conglomerate Degussa, the company that later produced their patented Zyklon B pesticide for the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Auer would use slave labor to procure uranium sheets for Germany’s atomic bomb program in this new corporate structure.19

In February 1925, as part of this reorganization of the illegal German chemical weapons program, Seeckt, Stresemann, and Interior Minister Schiele agreed to an Institut für Gasanalyse in Germany’s elite technical university, the Technische Hochschule zu Berlin.20 Its first head was Haber’s protégé and Council of Scientific Workers member Fritz Wirth, a biology professor. Ostensibly, Wirth’s work was to focus on civilian defense. With government funding, he maintained a laboratory where he focused on “degassing [living] tissue”,  treating those who had been exposed to poisonous agents.21 But other academic teams worked on purely offensive technologies. One university research laboratory was assigned to develop a new variant of mustard gas suitable for “spraying purposes” and thus useful in strategic bombing.22 A third laboratory, managed by the head of the Pharmacology Department at the University of Würzburg, worked on trying to synthesize new poison gas agents.23 Despite this network, the Reichswehr still could not perform essential tests at home. To remedy that deficit, the Reichswehr sought to relocate its chemical weapons research to the Soviet Union.

The effort already underway to do exactly that, the chemical weapons facility at Bersol, was not going well. By 1925, Bersol produced superphosphates (a fertilizing agent) and small quantities of the asphyxiating agent phosgene.24 The Soviets had anticipated half a million shells a year, a figure nowhere near reality. Frustrated by the slow progress at the facility, Soviet representatives dispatched Vladimir Ipatieff, former head of their chemical weapons program, back to Bersol. He reported to Moscow that the plant appeared unsafe and totally unfit for mass production of chemical agents.25 The Reichswehr began their own investigation and soon concluded that Stolzenberg had been lying to them about matters at the plant.26

The other corporate venture, the aviation plant at Fili, was in even worse shape, temporarily shutting down production. In the early spring of 1925, Junkers claimed Fili would either require additional contracts for its financial solvency or be forced to close.27 Neither the Reichswehr, which had purchased aircraft from the Fokker Company in the Netherlands, nor the Soviet Air Force was willing to make additional purchases from Fili. As a result, in March, Junkers AG’s managing director Gotthard Sachsenberg ordered Fili to shut down production and reduce staff at Fili by 98 percent, keeping only a skeleton crew of thirty on-site.28 

The failure of Fili and the struggles of Bersol shifted Soviet-German cooperation in a new direction. There was clearly a sense of urgency for the Germans as the corporate ventures fell apart—the entire vision of partnership with the Soviet Union seemed to be at risk should the existing enterprises collapse without any substitute form of partnership. As noted, the Soviets had offered the Reichswehr use of an airbase near Lipetsk in 1924. In 1925, Seeckt decided to move forward with this venture. 

For Seeckt, a flight school in Russia was part of his multidirectional program to rebuild German airpower despite Versailles. At the end of the First World War, the Reichswehr had attempted to retain at least the nucleus of a future air force, despite the Versailles ban on aircraft. Seeckt saw that the Reichswehr retained the services, in one capacity or another, of 200 pilots. Of these, 180 were army aviators, and 20 were naval aviators.29 Quite a few of these officers were assigned to cavalry units, alongside general staff officers hidden throughout the ranks of the Reichswehr. As noted, Helmuth Wilberg was assigned to supervise this network of flyers.

Outside of the Reichswehr, other measures were taken with an eye toward the revival of a future German air force. The Reichswehr patronized aerial sports groups as one means of developing a reserve of pilots.30 These clubs, flying unpowered gliders, taught the very basics of flight to a new generation of young men. In addition, Wilberg took advantage of airlines and mail services, arranging contracts for former pilots with mail and passenger companies in Europe and South America. In 1925, the Reichswehr’s exploitation of these civil aviation opportunities remained rudimentary, however.31

In any case, such measures proved insufficient for Seeckt’s vision. Almost all the pilots embedded in the Reichswehr were First World War veterans, already in their thirties or forties. Younger pilots were therefore needed for a future conflict that might be a decade away. Efforts to expand the glider and civilian aviation programs in Germany in the 1920s proved too difficult. Future Luftwaffe General Wilhelm Speidel, who would learn to fly at Lipetsk in 1928, recalled that the use of civilian airlines quickly became problematic as the number of officers had made it “increasingly difficult to maintain outward camouflage. While pilot and observer training could be conducted in Germany, Speidel noted, “the training of fighter pilots . . . was not possible in Germany.”32

The other missing element of the Reichswehr’s secret aviation programs at home was developing new aircraft prototypes. The Fili enterprise had not resulted in cutting-edge designs. Given the limitations imposed by Versailles and the continued presence of IAMCC inspection teams in Germany proper, some other place would have to be found to test new aircraft prototypes that might serve as the basis for a renewal of German air power later date. In the minds of senior Reichswehr personnel, it was critical to preserve the hard-won engineering expertise of the First World War and find a place to test the new prototypes Wilberg and Student had commissioned with Arado Alabros, Messerschmitt, and Heinkel in 1923. The solution was the Soviet-German partnership to both the challenges of training new pilots and testing new aircraft.

Seeckt’s interest in expanding the direct partnership was met with equal enthusiasm from the Red Army, particularly Mikhail Frunze. In January 1925, Frunze had replaced Trotsky as commissar for military and naval affairs.33 He added other jobs to his portfolio as Stalin hounded Trotsky out of his management of the Red Army. In May, Frunze became a candidate member of the Politburo and then, some six months later, replaced Trotsky as chairman of the RVs. Throughout the spring and summer of 1925, he demonstrated keen enthusiasm for working with the Germans, not only seeing them as a model for his reforms but actively seeking to continue the Junkers AG arrangement at Fili despite the difficulties that had become apparent.34 

Frunze saw an opportunity at Lipetsk to develop the Soviet military’s own cadres. One of his central tasks for the Soviet military was to replace Tsarist-era officers of questionable loyalty with a generation of loyal communists from the working class. Developing that expertise meant creating a whole new generation of pilots, mechanics, and engineers. As noted, one Soviet officer had attended Reichswehr training and maneuvers in 1924.35 Frunze aimed to expand those sorts of officer exchanges massively in scope, providing opportunities for new, communist officers to improve their professional military education. He hoped to develop similar opportunities within the Soviet Union.

In addition, Frunze wanted to gain direct access to German technology. At this early stage in its development, the Soviet military in general, and the VVS in particular, largely depended on reverse-engineering foreign technology. If German prototypes began arriving at Lipetsk, the Soviets could study them without German consent. The Reichswehr, initially eager for Lipetsk's opportunities, would agree to allow the VVS to inspect all technical equipment sent to the airbase. This provision would become more contentious as Lipetsk would grow into the Reichswehr’s primary aviation testing ground. It was in this context that in mid-March 1925, the Reichswehr held a secret conference in Berlin. A small group of German officers met to draw up a clear program for leasing the Lipetsk Air Base before a final contract was negotiated with the Soviets. For Lieth-Thomsen, heading the project, the critical question was whom to hire to supervise the work at Lipetsk. His criteria were quite specific: “a manager of the old type and a good flier” who could maximize the Reichswehr’s limited resources.36 Simultaneously, however, to conceal the enterprise's illegal nature, Lieth-Thomsen wanted a retired officer to run it, thus giving the illusion of being a private enterprise so as not to contravene Versailles.37 All of the school’s activities and communications would be subordinated to Lieth-Thomsen’s office in Moscow, but Lieth-Thomsen intended to leave Lipetsk’s commandant with considerable autonomy.38

Lieth-Thomsen’s ideal candidate was Colonel Walter Stahr, an old friend of his former commander of the Seventh Army’s Air Wing, whom he had invited to the discussion sessions in Berlin. Lieth-Thomsen described Stahr as “an extraordinarily practical person . . . who has often made the most of slim resources.”39 Further, Stahr had the advantage of being (like Lieth-Thomsen) retired, leaving the Reichswehr as a major in 1922. But Stahr proved hesitant to commit to Lipetsk, in part because of his young wife and two children. The conditions in Russia in 1925 were still very inhospitable for foreign residents, both politically and economically. That year, one German officer had resigned, and another requested to take an extended leave of absence, both citing the poor living conditions. Stahr eventually agreed to take over management of the school at Lipetsk for a hefty salary, paid in US dollars.40

Stahr’s first month on the job was a busy one; he traveled to Russia to meet with Soviet counterparts and also began searching for suitable personnel in Germany to staff the new base.41 In conversations with Stahr, Lieth-Thomsen had described his ideal flight instructor as a combat veteran not currently in the Reichswehr who had flown both the Fokker D-XI and XIII fighter aircraft and could teach “dogfighting, squadron flying, shooting, and theoretical training.”42 In addition, Lipetsk required the services of a master mechanic, who knew the latest engine designs and could teach how to build and test them.43 This officer would have teams of mechanics training under him while at Lipetsk. This role Stahr and Lieth-Thomsen filled more easily, as Lieth-Thomsen knew an “excellent mechanic” who had also spent five years in a Russian POW camp and therefore spoke fluent Russian.44

Lieth-Thomsen also made it clear to Stahr that he wanted as few German staff present as possible, given concerns over cost and the terms of Versailles. He told Stahr that the total staff for the first summer session in 1925 should be only about a dozen “retired” officers, equipped with eighteen total aircraft for use by both the staff and the Russians.45 While circumstances had improved, it remained uncertain what would happen should the British or French intelligence learn about covert German rearmament plans. After all, the late payments of reparations had led to the occupation of part of Germany. Secrecy and deniability were key. 

With these details arranged, the Germans presented their program for a flight school at Lipetsk to Baranov. After some negotiation in Moscow, Lieth-Thomsen and Baranov signed a protocol establishing a flight school at Lipetsk on April 15, 1925.46 The contract provided for the immediate lease of the base at Lipetsk Sondergruppe R to establish a flying school and factory for the testing and modification of aircraft. As there were almost no buildings on site, the treaty required establishing a “hangar, workshop, administrative office, storage facilities” and barracks to be built on-site no later than the end of June 1925, only three months away.47 According to Speidel, Seeckt himself oversaw developing a seven-point program for the proposed flight school, centered on training pilots and testing aircraft.48 The task was to develop the nucleus of a new German air force.


Part One:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part One

Part Two:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Two

Part Three:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Three

Part Four:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Four

Part Five:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Five

Part Six:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Six

Part Seven:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Seven

Part Nine:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Nine

Part Ten:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Ten

Part Eleven:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Eleven

Part Twelve:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Twelve

Part Thirteen:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Thirteen

Part Fourteen:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fourteen

Part Fifteen:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fifteen


Apart from the archival documents listed in the footnotes following is a list of published sources that have been used:

1. Giulio Douhet, “The War of 19—,” 292–405, in command of The Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), 372.

2. Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Programs, 1998), 6–7.

3. Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman, A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare (New York: Random House, 2002), 32.

4. Fishman, “Betrieb: Erscheinungsformen der chemischen Luftwaffe” [Subject: Forms of the Chemical Air Force], 1925, 1.

5. “Doklad itogakh raboti gostei za 1930 g.” [Report on the results of work by the guests for 1930, 15 January 1931, RGVA, f. 33988, op. 3, d. 162, l. 10, 6–7. Whether this is true or not seems uncertain; Sonderkommando Z noted in a report dated 1924 that “Chemical aviation: since we have no prior experience in this field, I am unable to nominate a candidate. But I will get in touch with Stolzenberg.” “Fl.N.Nr. 4” [Flight Report Number 4], 8 August 1924, BA-MA, RH2/2216/311–312, 1–2.

6. Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg, 106.

7. Col. Phillip S. Meilinger, “Giulio Douhet and the Origins of Airpower Theory,” in The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory, ed. Col. Phillip S. Meilinger (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1997), 17.

8. Authors repeatedly mentioned American experiments in both the German Militär-Wochenblatt and the Soviet Voina i Tekhnika in the early 1920s.

9. Amos A. Fries and Clarence J. West, “The Future of Chemical Warfare,” in Chemical Warfare (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1921), 436.

10. Christopher A. Warren, “GAS, GAS, GAS! The Debate over Chemical Warfare between the World Wars,” Federal History, 4 (Jan. 2012), 43–60; 55.

11. Fishman, “Betrieb: Erscheinungsformen der chemischen Luftwaffe” [Subject: Forms of the Chemical Air Force], 1925; Thomas Iain Faith, “Under a Green Sea: The US Chemical Warfare Services, 1917–1929” (unpubl. diss., George Washington University, 2008), 119.

12. Fishman, “Betrieb: Erscheinungsformen der chemischen Luftwaffe,” 2.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Yakov Fishman, “Predsedateliu, Revolutionnogo Voennogo Soveta” [To the Head of the Revolutionary Military Council], February 1929, RGVA, f. 33987, op. 3, d. 285, l. 13, (Y-RAP 152), 2.

16. Ibid., 1.

17. Stolzenberg, Fritz Haber, 168.

18. Stolzenberg, Fritz Haber, 168–169. The committee was headed by Reichswehr General Max Ludwig.

19. Peter Hayes, From Cooperation to Complicity: Degussa in the Third Reich (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 132–133, 214–215.

20. Zeidler, 124.

21. Fishman, “Predsedateliu, Revolutionnogo Voennogo Soveta,” 2.

22. Ibid.

23. Zeidler, 202. Many of these researchers were reintegrated into the German military after Hitler came to power. Professor Neumann of the University of Würzburg joined the SA in 1934 and the Wehrmacht in 1937. A number of his students would be commissioned into the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, too. See Stefanie Kalb, “Wilhelm Neumann (1898–1965)—Leben und Werk unter besonderer Berücksichtigung seiner Rolle in der Kampfstoff-Forschung” [Wilhelm Neumann (1898–1965)—Life and Work with a Special Emphasis on His Role in Poison Gas Research] (unpubl. diss., University of Würzburg, 2005).

24. “Politburo—Iz Protokola No. 78” [From Politburo Protocol Number 78], 13 January 1927, RGASPI, f. 17, op. 162, d. 4, l. 45, 1.

25. V. N. Ipatieff, “Original Manuscript of ‘My Life as a Chemist,’ ” 1946, Ipatieff Collection, Boxes 1 and 2, Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University (Hereafter HIA), 608–639.

26. Zeidler, 98.

27. “Das Junkers-Unternehmen in Fili (Russland) in seiner Entwicklung und seinem Verhältnis zum Reichswehrministerium bis zum Herbst ’25,” 13 January 1926, 25.

28. Zeidler, 94; Gotthard Sachsenberg, “Brief Zampred RVS SSSR Tov. Frunze” [Letter to the Chairman of the RVS of the USSR, Comrade Frunze], 13 July 1925, RGVA, f. 4, op. 2, d. 90, l. 148, 1–4, 3–4. 29. “Reichswehrministerium, Nr. 722/20 Stab vom 10.2.1920,” 10 February 1920, RH/2/2280, 175, 1–2. 30. Carsten, The Reichswehr and Politics, 221–222.

31. Citino, The Path to Blitzkrieg, 12–13.

32. Speidel, “Reichswehr und Rote Armee,” 21.

33. Kotkin, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 557.

34. Gorlov, 101.

35. That officer, Goretsky, visited Berlin for three months. “Spisok komandno-nachal’stvuiushchego sostava RKKA,” June 1938, 45.

36. “Fl. Bericht 27; Schule Lipetsk” [Flight Report Number 27; School Lipetsk], 12 March 1925, BA-MA, RH/2/2216, 2.

37. Ibid.; “Fl. Bericht Nr. 28” [Flight Report Number 28], 19 March 1925, BA-MA, RH/2/2216, 1.

38. “Fl. Bericht Nr. 28” [Flight Report Number 28], 19 March 1925, 3.

39. “Fl. Bericht 27; Schule Lipetsk” [Flight Report Number 27; School Lipetsk], 12 March 1925, 5–7.

40. “Vertrag zwischen Herrn v. d. Lieth und Herrn Stahr” [Contract Agreement between Herr von der Lieth Thomsen and Herr Stahr], 12 March 1925, BA-MA, RH/2/2216, 1.

41. “Fl. Bericht Nr. 28” [Flight Report Number 28], 19 March 1925, 1.

42. Ibid., 2.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid., 2–3.

45. Ibid., 4.

46. “Protokoll über die Vereinbarungen zwischen der Russischen Luftflotte und dem Vertreter der Sondergruppe in Moskau über Einrichtung einer Fliegerschule und eines Gerätelager in Lipezk” [Details of the Agreement between the Russian Air Force and the representatives of the Special Group in Moscow regarding a flying school and an equipment warehouse in Lipetsk], 15 April 1925, BA-MA, RH2/2214, 2, 1–4. Speidel believed that the VVS and Reichswehr agreed to a contract for Lipetsk in 1924, but the contract in the German national archives is dated the following spring. He might have believed an arrangement had been reached earlier because of the dispatch of a group of German pilots to Lipetsk the previous summer.

47. “Protokoll, Lipezk” [Agreement, Lipetsk], 15 April 1925, 1. 48. Speidel, “Reichswehr und Rote Armee,” 25.


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