World War I (WWI) Plane Warfare:


WWI was the first war in which planes were deployed on a large scale; tethered observation balloons had already been employed in several wars and was still used extensively for artillery spotting; Germany employed Zeppelins for reconnaissance over the North Sea and strategic bombing raids over England.

Planes were just coming into military use at the outset of the war; initially, they were used mostly for reconnaissance over the trenches; pilots and engineers learned from experience, leading to the development of many specialised types, including fighters, bombers and ground attack aeroplanes.

Ace fighter pilots were portrayed as modern knights and many became popular heroes; the war also saw the appointment of high ranking officers to direct the belligerent nations' air war effort.

In Germany the great successes of the early Zeppelin airships had largely overshadowed the importance of heavier than air planes; out of about 230 planes belonging to the army in August 1914 only 180 or so were of any use; the French military aviation exercises of 1911, 1912 and 1913 had pioneered cooperation with reconnaissance for the cavalry and spotting for the artillery.

Great Britain had started late and initially relied largely on the French planes industry, especially for planes engines; the initial British contribution to the total allied airwar effort in August 1914 was 3 squadrons of about 30 serviceable machines, of around 184 planes.

The American army and navy air services were hopelessly behind; even in 1917, when they entered the war, they were to be almost totally dependent on the French and British planes industries for combat planes; the initial campaigns of 1914 proved that cavalry could no longer provide the reconnaissance expected by their generals, in the face of the greatly increased firepower of 20th century armies.

Air Reconnaissance:

It was quickly realised, on the other hand, that planes could at least locate the enemy, even if early air reconnaissance was hampered by the newness of the techniques involved; early scepticism and low expectations quickly turned to unrealistic demands beyond the capabilities of the primitive planes that were available.

Even so, air reconnaissance played a critical role in the war of movement of 1914, especially in helping the Allies halt the German invasion of France; on the 22nd August 1914, British Captain L.E.O. Charlton and Lieutenant V.H.N. Wadham reported that German General Alexander von Kluck's army was preparing to surround the British Expeditionary Force, contradicting all other intelligence.

The British High Command listened to the report and started a withdrawal toward Mons, saving the lives of 100,000 soldiers; later, during the First Battle of Marne, observation planes discovered weak points and exposed flanks in the German lines, allowing the allies to take advantage of them; the Germans' great air "coup" of 1914 was at the Battle of Tannenberg in East Prussia where an unexpected Russian attack was seen and reported by the German pilots Lts. Canter and Mertens, resulting in the Russians' being forced to withdraw.

By March 1915, 3 Main Functions Of Short Range Reconnaissance Squadrons Had Emerged:

Photographic Reconnaissance - Used to build up a map of the enemy trench system; the first air cameras used glass plates; Kodak cellulose film had been invented, but did not have a sufficient resolution for the task.

Artillery Spotting - Used to enable the ranging of artillery on targets invisible to the gunners; radio telephony was not yet practical from a plane, so at first communication was a problem, but by March 1915, a two seater plane on artillery observation duties was typically equipped with a primitive radio transmitter, which transmitted the dots and dashes of a Morse code, but it had no receiver; the artillery battery had to signal to theit planes by laying strips of white cloth on the ground in prearranged patterns.

Observation Balloons - Used for Artillery Spotting as well; balloonists could communicate directly with their batteries by field telephone, but they were obviously far less flexible in locating targets and reporting the fall of shot.

Contact Patrol - Used to follow the course of a battle by communicating with advancing infantry whilst flying over the battlefield; at first radio contact was not possible and methods of signalling included the dropping of messages from planes; however, soldiers were initially reluctant to reveal their positions to any planes as they found distinguishing between friend and foe problematic.

Reconnaissance flying, of any type, was a hazardous business for the Royal Flying Core (RFC); in April 1917 the average life expectancy of a British pilot on the Western Front was only 93 flying hours.

Early Bombing Efforts:

Typical 1914 planes could only carry very small bomb loads; the bombs and stowage was elementary and effective bomb sights were still to be developed; nonetheless, the beginnings of strategic and tactical bombing dates from the earliest days of the war.

Some of the most notable raids made by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) were on the German airship sheds at Düsseldorf, Cologne and Friedrichhafen in September, October and November of 1914, as well as the formation of the Brieftauben Abteilung Ostende, or 'Ostend carrier pigeon detachment', the cover name for the first German strategic bombing unit, which mounted the first token raid over the English Channel in December.

The Dawn Of Air Combat:

Initially Planes used in air combat over the trenches was extremely rare and definitely subordinate to reconnaissance; there are numerous stories of the crew of rival reconnaissance planes exchanging nothing more belligerent than smiles and waves; however, this soon progressed to throwing bricks, grenades and other objects, even rope, which they hoped would tangle the enemy planes's propeller.

The first planes to be brought down by another was an Austrian reconnaissance plane, which was rammed on the 8th September 1914 by the Russian pilot Pyotr Nesterov in Galicia on the Eastern Front, but both planes crashed as the result of the attack killing all occupants.

Eventually pilots began firing handheld firearms at enemy planes and on the 5th October 1914, French pilot Louis Quenault opened fire on a German plane with a machine gun that had been fitted to his plane; Quenault reported history's first ever air-to-air kill; the era of air combat proper began as more and more planes were Mounted with Machine Guns; in the air, as in the trenches, the machine gun became the war's deadliest weapon.

The Mounted Machine Gun Pusher Solution:

Designers at the British firm Vickers were experimenting with Mounted Machine Gun carrying planes as early as 1912 and the first concrete result was the Vickers Experimental Fighting Biplane 1, which featured at the 1913 aero show and appeared in developed form as the Vickers FB.5 in February 1915; this pioneering fighter, like the Royal planes Factory F.E.2b and the Airco DH.1, was a pusher type.

The pusher design had the engine and propeller behind the pilot, facing backwards, rather than in front, as in a tractor type; this provided an optimal machine gun position, from which the gun could be fired directly forwards without an obstructing propeller and reloaded and cleared in flight.

A big drawback however, was that pusher designs, because of the struts and rigging necessary to hold their tail units and the extra drag this entailed, tended at best to have an inferior performance to tractor types with the same engine power; although the F.E.2d, a more powerful version of the F.E.2b, remained a formidable opponent well into 1917, pusher fighters were already obsolete; the problem was simply that they were too slow to catch their quarry.

The mounting of a machine gun firing to the rear, from two seater tractor planes, gave good defensive capability, but there was an obvious need for some way to fire a machine gun forward from tractor planes, especially from one of the small, light scout planes, that had been adapted from pre war racers, that were to perform most of air combat duties for the rest of the war.

It seemed most natural to place the gun between the pilot and the propeller, in order to be able to aim it as well as service it during a gun jam; however, this presented an obvious problem, a percentage of the bullets would strike the propeller, quickly destroying it; early experiments with synchronised machine guns were carried out before the war in several countries; Franz Schneider patented a synchronisation gear on the 15th July 1913; an early Russian gear was designed by a Lieutenant Poplavko and the Edwards Brothers in England designed the first British example and the Morane Saulnier company were working on the problem in 1914.

All these early gears failed to attract official attention, partly due to official inertia and partly due to the terrifying results of failures of these early synchronising gears, which included dangerously ricocheting bullets as well as disintegrating propellers; the Lewis gun, used on many early Allied planes, proved next to impossible to successfully synchronise due to its open bolt firing cycle; in an open bolt firing cycle, it is impossible to predict the exact time any given round will fire and for obvious reasons this is an unattractive characteristic in a weapon one is attempting to fire between the spinning blades of a propeller.

Plane Mounted Machine Guns:

The Allies often used the Vickers Machine Gun and Germany used the LMG 14 Parabellum and the LMG 08 Spandau, which had a closed bolt firing cycle that started with a bullet already in the breech and the breech closed, so the firing of the bullet was the next step in the cycle; this meant that the exact instant the round would be fired could be predicted, making these weapons considerably easier to synchronise.

The standard French light machine gun, the Hotchkiss, was also most unamenable to synchronisation due to rounds hanging fire, and the Morane-Saulnier company designed a safety backup, in the form of deflector blades, metal wedges, fitted to the propeller at the point where they would be struck by a bullet.

Roland Garros trialled this system in a Morane-Saulnier L in April 1915; he managed to score several kills, although it proved to be an inadequate and dangerous solution; Garros was eventually forced by engine failure, possibly caused by the repeated strain on his planes's crankshaft by the deflected bullets striking his propeller, to land behind enemy lines, and he and his plane, were captured by the Germans.

Famously, the German High Command passed Garros' Morane to the Fokker company, which had already produced Morane type monoplanes for the German Air Service, with orders to copy the latest design, but the deflector system was totally unsuitable for the steel jacketed German ammunition so that the Fokker engineers were forced to revisit the synchronisation idea, perhaps infringing Schneider's patent, resulting in the Eindecker fighter series; crude as these little monoplanes were, they produced a period of German air superiority, known as the "Fokker Scourge" by the Allies, who had up until now been more or less unchallenged in the air and the vulnerability of their older reconnaissance planes, especially the British B.E.2 and French Farman pushers, came as a very nasty shock.

Another method used to fire a machine gun forward from a tractor design was to mount the gun to fire above the propeller arc; this required that the gun was mounted on the top wing of biplanes and was propped up and secured by complicated, drag inducing mounting; however, this created a serious problem of reaching the gun to change drums or belts, or clear jams.

Eventually Foster mounting became more or less the standard way of mounting a Lewis Gun; it allowed the gun to slide backwards for drum changing and to be fired at an upward angle, a very effective way of attacking an enemy from a blind spot; however, this type of mounting was only possible for biplanes with a top wing positioned near the apex of the propeller's arc; it also put considerable strain on the fragile wing structure and was less rigid than a gun mounting on the fuselage, producing a greater scatter of bullets, especially at anything but very short range.

Planes Used Over The Trenches:

The Bristol Scout saw aerial combat duty in 1915, the Scout C, had Lewis gun mounts in RNAS service that were sometimes elevated above the propeller arc and sometimes firing directly through the propeller arc without synchronisation; however, captain Lanoe Hawker of the RFC, mounted his Lewis gun just forward of the cockpit on the left side of his planes's fuselage at about a 30° angle, in order to fire forwards and outwards; on the 25th July 1915, with this plane he managed to defeat 3 German two seat observation planes and earned the first Victoria Cross awarded to a British aviator.

The first purpose designed fighter planes included the British Vickers F.B.5; machine guns was also fitted to several French types, such as the Morane-Saulnier L and Morane-Saulnier N; initially the German Air Service lagged behind the Allies in this respect, but this was soon to change; in July 1915 the Fokker E.I became operational, these were the first type of planes to enter service with a "synchronisation gear", which enabled a machine gun to fire through the arc of the propeller without striking its blades; this constituted an important advantage over other contemporary fighter planes.

This plane and its immediate successors, also commonly known as the Eindecker, German for "Monoplane", for the first time supplied an effective equivalent to Allied fighters; two German military aviators, Otto Parschau and Kurt Wintgens, worked for the Fokker firm during the spring of 1915, demonstrating the revolutionary feature of the forward firing synchronised machine gun that the Eindecker was armed with, to the embryonic force of Fliegertruppe pilots of the German Empire.

Dog Fights:

The very first successful engagement (Dog Fight) involving synchronised gun armed planes occurred on the 1st July 1915, just to the east of Lunéville, France when Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, one of the pilots selected by Fokker to demonstrate the small series of five Eindecker prototype planes, forced down a French Morane-Saulnier Type L "Parasol" two seat observation monoplane behind Allied lines with his Fokker M.5K/MG Eindecker production prototype plane, carrying the IdFlieg military serial number "E.5/15"; some 200 shots from Wintgens' plane had hit the Gnôme Lambda rotary engine of the Morane Parasol, forcing it to land safely in Allied territory.

By late 1915 the Germans had achieved air superiority, making Allied access to vital intelligence derived from continual aerial reconnaissance more dangerous to acquire; in particular the essential defencelessness of Allied reconnaissance types was exposed; the first German "ace" pilots, notably Max Immelmann, had begun their careers; the number of actual Allied casualties involved was for various reasons very small compared with the intensive air fighting of 1917 to 1918.

The deployment of the Eindeckers was less than overwhelming, the new type was issued in ones and twos to existing reconnaissance squadrons and it was to be nearly a year before the Germans were to follow the British in establishing specialist fighter squadrons; the Eindecker was also, in spite of its advanced armament, by no means an outstanding plane, being closely based on a pre war French racer.

Nonetheless, the morale impact of the fact that the Germans were fighting back in the air, and effectively too, created a major scandal in the British parliament and press; the ascendency of the Eindecker also contributed to the surprise the Germans were able to achieve at the start of the Battle of Verdun, due to the French reconnaissance planes failing to provide their usual cover of the German positions.

Fortunately for the Allies, two new British fighters were already in production that were a match for the Fokker, the F.E.2b and the Airco D.H.1; these were both "pushers" and could fire forwards without gun synchronisation; the F.E.2b reached the front in September 1915 and the Airco D.H.2 in the following February; on the French front, the tiny Nieuport 11, a tractor biplane with a forward firing gun mounted on the top wing, outside of the arc of the propeller, also proved more than a match for the German fighter when it entered service in January 1916.

With these new types the Allies re-established air superiority in time for the Battle of the Somme and the "Fokker Scourge" was over; the German Fokker E-III, British Airco DH-2 and French Nieuport 11 would be the very first in a long line of single seat fighter planes used by both sides during the war.

It soon became clear that the primary role of fighters would be attacking enemy two seaters, which were becoming increasingly important as sources of reconnaissance and artillery observation, whilst also escorting and defending friendly two seaters from enemy fighters; fighters were also used to attack enemy observation balloons, strafe enemy ground targets and defend friendly airspace from enemy bombers.

The Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme:

When the battle of Verdun began on the 21st February 1916, German air superiority initially enabled the German luftsperre to establish a blockade on the French air squadrons; however the French were already arming their specialist fighter squadrons, the Escadrilles de chasse, with the Nieuport 11 and with a new offensive strategy they quickly overcame the luftsperre, establishing air superiority over the battle by April.

In the meantime, in the aftermath of the Fokker Scourge, the need for a larger, better equipped RFC became obvious and the process of raising many new British squadrons was started; in the short term creating new units was easier than producing planes to equip them, and training pilots to man them.

When the Battle of the Somme started in July 1916 most ordinary RFC squadrons were still equipped with the BE.2c, the same planes that had proved such an easy target for the Fokker Eindecker; new types such as the Sopwith 1½ Strutter had to be transferred from production intended for the RNAS; even more seriously, replacement pilots were being sent to France with pitifully few flying hours.

Nonetheless, air superiority and an offensive strategy known as trench strafing, facilitated the greatly increased involvement of the RFC in the battle itself and for the rest of the war this became a regular routine, with both the attacking and defending infantry in a land battle being constantly liable to attack by machine guns and light bombs from the air; at this time, counter fire from the ground was far less effective than it became later, when the necessary techniques of deflection shooting had been mastered.

Allied air superiority was maintained during both battles and the increased effectiveness of Allied air activity proved disturbing to the German High Command; a complete reorganisation of the German Luftstreitkräfte followed; this reorganisation eventually produced the German strategic bombing squadrons that were to produce such consternation in England in 1917 and 1918, and the specialist close support squadrons 'Schlachtstaffeln', that gave the British infantry such trouble at Cambrai and during the German Spring offensive of 1918.

Its most famous and dramatic effect, however, involved the raising of specialist fighter squadrons 'the Jagdstaffeln', a full year after similar units had become part of the RFC and the French Aéronautique Militaire; initially these units were equipped with the Halberstadt D.II, the Fokker D.I, Fokker D.II and Fokker D.III, each armed with one synchronised lMG 08 machine gun, but by the end of 1916 increasing numbers of the new Albatros fighters were well on the way to establishing the German air superiority that was to mark the first half of 1917.

Bloody April:

The first half of 1917 was a successful period for the jagdstaffeln and the much larger RFC suffered significantly higher casualties than their opponents; whilst new Allied fighters such as the Sopwith Pup, Sopwith Triplane and SPAD S.VII were coming into service, at this stage their numbers were small; on the other hand, the jagdstaffeln were equipped with the new Albatros D.III, which was, in spite of some structural difficulties, the best fighting scout on the Western Front, at the time.

Meanwhile, most RFC two-seater squadrons still flew the BE.2e, a very minor improvement on the BE.2c, and fundamentally unsuited to air-to-air combat; this culminated in the rout of April 1917, known as "Bloody April"; the RFC suffered particularly severe losses, but Trenchard's policy of offensive patrol, which placed most combat flying on the German side of the lines, was maintained.

During the last half of 1917, the British Sopwith Camel and S.E.5a and the French SPAD S.XIII became available in numbers; the ordinary two seater squadrons in the RFC received the R.E.8 or the F.K.8, not outstanding warplanes, but far less vulnerable than the BE.2e they replaced; the F.E.2d at last received a worthy replacement in the Bristol F.2b; on the German side the latest Albatros D.V proved to be a disappointment, as was the Pfalz D.III and the exotic Fokker Dr.I was plagued, like the Albatros planes, with structural problems; by the end of the year the air superiority pendulum had swung once more in the Allies' favour.

The final year of the war saw increasing shortages of supplies on the side of the Central Powers; captured Allied planes were scrounged for every available material, even to the point of draining the lubricants from damaged engines just to keep one more German plane flyable; Manfred von Richthofen, the famed Red Baron credited with 80 victories, was killed in April, probably by an Australian anti planes machinegunner, although Royal Air Force pilot Captain Arthur Roy Brown was officially credited, and the leadership of Jagdgeschwader 1 eventually passed to Hermann Göring.

Germany introduced the Fokker D.VII, both loved and loathed to the point that the surrender of all surviving examples was specifically ordered by the victorious Allies; this year also saw the United States increasingly involved; whilst American volunteers had been flying in Allied squadrons since the early years of the war, not until 1918 did all American squadrons begin patrolling the skies above the trenches; at first, the Americans were largely supplied with second rate weapons and obsolete planes, such as the Nieuport 28, but as American numbers grew, the equipment improved, including the SPAD S.XIII, one of the best Belgium planes in the war.

By the end of WWI the impact of air missions on the ground war was mainly tactical; strategic bombing, in particular, was still very rudimentary, which was partly due to restricted funding and use, it was after all, a new technology; on the other hand the effect of artillery, which had perhaps the greatest effect of any military arm in the war, was very much affected by the availability of aerial photography and aerial spotting.

By 1917 weather bad enough to restrict flying was considered as "putting the gunner's eyes out"; some, such as then Brigadier General William Billy Mitchell, commander of all the American air combat units in France, claimed "the only damage that has come to Germany has been through the air"; Mitchell was famously controversial in his view that the future of war was not on the ground or at sea, but in the air.

Anti Plane Weaponry:

A German Hannover CL III was shot down on the 4th October 1918 by American machine gunners in the Argonne; though planes still functioned as vehicles of observation, increasingly it was used as a weapon in itself; Dog fights erupted in the skies over the front lines and planes went down in flames

the new heroes, Knights of the Air, were born.

From this air-to-air combat, the need grew for better planes and gun armament; aside from machineguns, air-to-air rockets were also used, such as the Le Prieur rocket against balloons and airships; recoilless rifles and autocannons were also attempted but they pushed early fighters to unsafe limits while bringing negligible returns; another innovation was air-to-air bombing if a fighter had been fortunate enough to climb higher than an airship; the Ranken dart was designed just for this opportunity.

This need for improvement was not limited to just air-to-air combat; on the ground, methods developed before the war were being used to deter enemy planes from observation and bombing; anti-planes artillery rounds were fired into the air and exploded into clouds of smoke and fragmentation, called 'archie' by the British.

Anti plane artillery defenses were increasingly used around observation balloons, which became frequent targets of enemy fighters equipped with special incendiary bullets; because balloons were so flammable, due to the hydrogen used to inflate them, observers were given parachutes, enabling them to jump to safety; ironically though, only a few aircrew had this option, due in part to a mistaken belief that they inhibited aggressiveness and in part to their significant weight.

The Slower But Useful Two seater Planes:

As the stalemate developed on the ground, with both sides unable to advance even a few hundred yards without a major battle and thousands of casualties, planes became greatly valued for their role gathering intelligence on enemy positions and bombing the enemy's supplies behind the trench lines.

Large planes with a pilot and an observer were used to scout enemy positions and bomb their supply bases, but because they were large and slow, these planes made easy targets for enemy fighter planes; as a result, both sides used fighter planes to both attack the enemy's two-seater planes and to protect their own while carrying out their missions.

Whilst the two seater bombers and reconnaissance planes were slow and vulnerable, they were not defenseless; the two-seaters had the advantage of both forward and rearward firing guns; typically, the pilot controlled fixed guns behind the propeller, similar to guns in a fighter planes, whilst the observer controlled one with which he could use to cover the arc behind the planes.

A tactic used by enemy fighter planes to avoid fire from the rear gunner was to attack from slightly below the rear of the two-seaters, as the tail gunner was unable to fire below the planes; however, the two-seaters could counter this tactic by going into a dive at high speeds; pursuing a diving two-seater was hazardous for a fighter pilot, as it would place the fighter directly in the rear gunner's line of fire; several high scoring aces of the war were shot down by "lowly" two-seaters, including Raoul Lufbery, Erwin Böhme and Robert Little.

Strategic Bombing:

The first ever aerial bombardment of civilians was during WWI on the 19th January 1915, when two German Zeppelins dropped 24 110 lb (50-kilogram) high explosive bombs and ineffective 3 kilogram incendiaries on Great Yarmouth, Sheringham, King's Lynn and the surrounding villages; in all, four people were killed, sixteen injured and monetary the damage was estimated at £7,740.

There were a further nineteen raids in 1915, in which 37 tons of bombs were dropped, killing 181 people and injuring 455; the raids continued in 1916; London was accidentally bombed in May, and in July, the Kaiser allowed directed raids against urban centres; there were 23 airship raids in 1916 in which 125 tons of ordnance were dropped, killing 293 people and injuring 691.

Gradually British air defenses improved and in 1917 and 1918 there were only eleven Zeppelin raids against England and the final raid occurred on the 5th August 1918, which resulted in the death of KK Peter Strasser, commander of the German Naval Airship Department; by the end of the war, 51 raids had been undertaken, in which 5,806 bombs were dropped, killing 557 people and injuring 1,358.

The Zeppelin raids were complemented by the Gotha G bombers from 1917, which were the first heavier than air bombers to be used for strategic bombing and by a small force of 5 Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI "giant" four engined bombers from late September 1917 through to mid May 1918; 28 Gotha twin-engined bombers were lost on the raids over England, with no losses for the Zeppelin-Staaken giants; it has been argued that the raids were effective far beyond material damage in diverting and hampering wartime production and diverting 12 squadrons and over 10,000 men to air defenses; calculations performed on the number of dead to the weight of bombs dropped had a profound effect on attitudes of the British government and population in the interwar years, who believed that "The bomber will always get through".

Observation Balloons (OBs):

Manned OBs floating high above the trenches were used as stationary reconnaissance points on the front lines, reporting enemy troop positions and directing artillery fire; the balloons commonly had a crew of two equipped with parachutes; upon an enemy air attack on the flammable balloon, the crew would parachute to safety.

Recognized for their value as observer platforms, OBs were important targets of enemy planes; to defend against air attack, they were heavily protected by large concentrations of anti plane guns and patrolled by friendly planes.

Blimps and balloons helped contribute to the stalemate of the trench warfare and contributed to air to air combat for air superiority because of their significant reconnaissance value pilots were encouraged to attack enemy balloons and both sides counted downing an enemy balloon as an "air-to-air" kill, with the same value as shooting down an enemy plane.

Some pilots, known as balloon busters, became particularly distinguished by their prowess at shooting down enemy balloons; perhaps the best known of these was American ace Frank Luke: 14 of his 18 kills were enemy balloons.


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