World War One and the Birth of Aerial Warfare

On December 17, 1903, two bicycle manufacturers from Dayton, Ohio, stood on a windy beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and tossed a coin.  While the winner, Orville Wright, positioned himself inside a flimsy machine, made of wood and cloth, his brother Wilbur started up their homemade gasoline engine.  Moments later, the rickety contraption rolled along a metal guide rail, then, as it gained speed, it left the ground and flew about ten feet above the sand for twelve seconds, covering a distance of 120 feet.

The age of flight had begun.

A new type of combat had also been born, though the world’s leading military establishments were not quick to see it.


Roland Garros, the first fighter ace.

It wasn’t until 1909 that the first military airplane was flown; the Wright Military Flyer could hold two people and carry them aloft for an hour, at a speed of 40 miles per hour.  The US Army used the airplanes for aerial reconnaissance.

Although the first workable airplane had been produced in the United States, however, the most advanced work in aeronautics was done in France.  In the years immediately following the Wright brothers’ flight, so many airplanes were being designed and flown in France, by people like Alberto Samos-Dumont, Gabriel Voisin, Louis Bleriôt, and Henri Fabré, that most modern aeronautical terms (such as “fuselage”, “aileron” and “nacelle”) are of French origin.

On July 25, 1909, Bleriôt flew a Model XI version of his airplane across the English Channel from France to Britain, and military leaders around the world were forced to realize that, in future wars, not even an island surrounded by the world’s strongest Navy was immune to being reached by a potential enemy.

That future war was only five years away, and, though no one knew exactly when it would happen, everyone knew it was coming.  France was still smarting from its defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, and was looking for a chance to regain its lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.  The newly unified Germany wanted to build a global empire equal to France and Britain’s.  The British, whose imperial interests had long been in conflict with France’s, now found themselves sharing a common interest with their former rival, as both France and Britain sought to prevent German gains at their expense.  Germany’s ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was wracked by ethnic strife and internal divisions—a situation that was watched carefully by Tsarist Russia, which had its own territorial ambitions in the Balkans.

The breaking point came on June 28, 1914, when a Serbian nationalist student shot and killed Franz Joseph Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.  With the support of Germany, Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia in retaliation.  Russia, in turn, mobilized its army to defend Serbia, Germany  then attacked France, and Britain sent military forces to defend its allies.  Within weeks, the Central Powers, consisting of Germany and Austria-Hungary, faced off against the Triple Entente Allies, made up of France, Britain and Russia.  It was the war that everyone expected, and that everyone had already been planning for. Both sides were confident of victory, and both sides assumed that the war would be over before Christmas.

The German war strategy, known as the Schlieffen Plan, called for a large German army to avoid French border defenses by charging around them through Belgium, then driving on Paris to take France out of the war.  For the Central Powers, surrounded on both sides by the Entente, it was imperative that France be knocked out of the war quickly, before the Russian army could fully mobilize.  With France defeated, the Germans could then turn their full military power against Tsarist Russia.

The invasion of Belgium took place in the first week of August 1914.  By September, German troops were within thirty miles of Paris, and it seemed as if the defeat of France was imminent.  On September 6, however, French observation planes detected a gap between two German armies, and, in the “Miracle of the Marne”, French and British troops poured into the gap and drove the Germans back over forty miles.  Paris was saved.  Within weeks, the German army dug itself in, constructing a string of defensive trenches that stretched, unbroken, from the Swiss border all the way across Europe to the English Channel.  The French and British also dug their own trench system, which was, in most places, 200-300 yards from the German lines (at some places, though, such as the Vimy Ridge, the opposing trenches were less than 30 yards apart).  Far from being a quick and easy victory, the “Great War” settled into a deadlocked stalemate that would last for four long bloody years.

The defensive trenches soon became intricate and complex, with two or three trenchlines, one behind the other, connected by shorter communications trenches. A typical trench was about seven feet deep and four feet wide.  The sides of the trenches were reinforced with wooden planks, sandbags, or wire mesh.   At the front of the trench, a parapet of sandbags was built up, with small gaps called “loopholes” which allowed soldiers to stand on a “firing step” and shoot at the enemy.  At intervals, a firing position made of sandbags was also placed for a new weapon, the machine gun.  Designed in the United States, the Maxim machine gun was used by both sides.  With overlapping fields of fire, the machine guns could cover the entire front, even if some of them were knocked out.  Extensive tangles of barbed wire prevented enemy troops from crossing the “No Man’s Land” between the opposing trenches. The Germans were particularly good at building “defenses in depth”, in which a second entire defensive network of trenches would be built a mile or two behind the first, allowing troops to regroup there and counterattack if the primary trench network were captured.

Sheltered within these extensive underground networks, the defender had an overwhelming advantage against any attacker.  The Germans, who were in occupied territory, took a defensive strategy, digging in firmly to oppose British and French efforts to dislodge them.  The Entente generals had no experience with this new kind of trench warfare, but, knowing that it was up to them to drive the Germans out, desperately resorted to massive “human wave” attacks, throwing thousands of troops across No Man’s Land to try to penetrate the German defenses.  Usually, these attacks were preceded by a massive artillery bombardment, which was intended to destroy the German trenches and kill everyone in them, but which were instead ineffective against the German troops in their trenches and deep dugouts.  In attack after attack, the British “tommies” and French “poilu” charged across the cratered shell-pocked landscape, only to be hung up on the barbed wire and mowed down by the German machine guns.  The Germans tried to break the stalemate with poison gas, a tactic which was quickly adopted by the British and French.  It didn’t help.  On the first day of the massive British attack on the Somme in 1916, almost 20,000 soldiers were killed by German machine guns.  Attack was followed by counter-attack.  Even during “quiet” periods, some 5,000 men were killed or wounded every day, from snipers, reconnaissance raids, or random artillery shells.  And through it all, the battle front never moved by more than a few hundred yards.  It was slaughter on a scale that the world had never seen before.

The Entente generals needed all the help they could get to find a way through the German trenches.  The first weapon they turned to was artillery.  During the Franco-Prussian War just 40 years earlier, artillerymen were still using cannons.  By 1914, though, artillery had developed into an extremely effective killer.  The old cannons were limited by their recoil, which knocked the cannon out of position and necessitated re-aiming after each shot.  The modern breech-loading howitzers of 1914, however, could absorb the recoil without moving, allowing gunners to consistently pound the same spot again and again.  One problem remained, though.  The old cannons were aimed entirely by sight.  The new artillery, however, had such long ranges that the gunners often could not see where their shells were landing, making it impossible for them to adjust their fire for greater accuracy.

It was the French expertise in aeronautics that helped solve the problem, and the earliest stage of aerial warfare centered around reconnaissance and artillery spotting.  Unarmed two-seater airplanes began to regularly fly over enemy trenches—the observer in the rear seat would photograph them and provide critical information for planning ground attacks, as well as giving advance warning of enemy troop movements and imminent attacks. Observation planes were also used as aerial artillery spotters, watching the shells fall and, using a wireless Morse code transmitter, advising gunners on corrections to their aim, allowing intense and accurate bombardments of enemy positions with pinpoint accuracy.

At first, aerial observation was a tranquil affair.  Opposing pilots would often wave to each other as they passed by, each on the way to photograph the other’s trenches.  It quickly became apparent, however, that it was a huge military advantage to prevent the other side from observing one’s trenches.  Rear-seat observers soon began carrying pistols and rifles to take potshots at each other, and it wasn’t long before light machine guns (like the British Lewis gun) were mounted at the rear of the plane for the observer to use against enemy reconnaissance flights.  By 1915, both sides began designing single-seat “scout” planes, which were specifically intended to seek out and shoot down enemy observation planes, and to defend their own spotters from enemy scouts.  During the war, most aces scored the majority of their aerial victories over enemy two-seat observation planes.  This was not simply because the spotter planes were slow, lumbering, easy targets, but also because they were the most important military targets in the air.

Before an effective aerial fighter plane could be produced, however, a puzzle had to be solved.  The simplest way for a solitary pilot to aim his gun was to mount it in line with the fuselage of his airplane, thus allowing him to aim the gun accurately simply by pointing the airplane’s nose at the target.  And since machine guns were prone to jamming and also held a limited amount of ammunition, they had to be physically within the pilot’s reach so they could be reloaded and, if necessary, unjammed.  The best location for this was on the cowling directly in front of the cockpit.

This, however, presented an awkward problem – it put the machine gun directly in line with the whirring propeller, and any pilot who aimed and fired his machine gun at an enemy would be virtually certain to shoot off his own propeller.

The first pilot to come up with an effective solution was the Frenchman Roland Garros.   Garros attached a light Hotchkiss machine gun to the front of his Morane monoplane, and to prevent it from shooting off his own propeller, he bolted two steel wedges to the back of the blades, deflecting any bullets that might hit them as he was firing.  On April 1, 1915, Garros successfully shot down a German observation plane over British trenches.  Later that day, another French pilot with a modified Morane, Jean Lavarre, also shot down a spotter plane.

Over the next week, Garros refined his tactics.  Since his Morane airplane was slower than the German biplanes he was chasing, he learned to loiter above the altitude normally taken by the spotters, then, when they passed below him, dive on them from behind to attack before they could speed away.  On April 11, Garros intercepted two German spotter planes and shot them both down.  They were his fourth and fifth aerial victories, making Garros the first fighter ace in history.

Less than a week after achieving ace status, though, Garros developed engine trouble while flying over German trenches and was forced to land.  Garros was held as a POW until he escaped in early 1918 and made his way back to France.  After a refresher training to learn to handle the newer French fighters, Garros returned to combat.  He was shot down and killed in October 1918, just a month before the war ended.

Garros’s captured Morane monoplane, meanwhile, was turned over to the Dutch aircraft designer Anthony Fokker, who was working for the Germans.  Fokker examined the steel wedges Garros had attached to his propeller blades, and knew that they enabled his plane to fire through the propeller, but Fokker was already working on a better system. His “interruptor gear” used a pronged cam attached to the propeller shaft to push a metal rod attached to the machine gun mechanism, which inactivated the gun whenever a propeller blade was directly in front of the barrel.  Although the pilot could fire the machine gun continuously, the cam would interrupt the fire whenever the propeller was in the way.

The interruptor gear system was incorporated into Fokker’s new Eindekker monoplane, known as the E-1.  Faster than the Morane, the Eindekker was superior to anything the Entente could put into the air.  Its larger more powerful engine allowed it to carry a Spandau machine gun, which was more powerful than the Hotchkiss carried by Garros.

The E-1 was the first purpose-built fighter plane, and two Eindekkers were placed immediately in combat, one each to pilots Max Immelman and Oswald von Boelcke.   On August 1, 1915, a flight of British BE2c bomber/observer planes attacked the German airfield at Douai, and Immelman and Boelcke took off in their Fokkers to intercept.  Boelcke’s gun jammed and he was forced to land, but Immelman shot down one of the BE2c’s and damaged another.

For the rest of 1915, Immelman and Boelcke carried on a friendly rivalry, with each matching the other’s score.  By October, both had scored five aerial victories and reached “ace” status.  On January 12, 1916, both aces scored their eighth victories, and both were awarded the Pour le Merite, the coveted military medal known informally as “The Blue Max”.  Throughout the first half of 1916, improved models of the Eindekker were shooting down so many Entente spotter planes that French and British fliers referred to the period as “The Fokker Scourge”.

Immelman was killed in June 1916, after scoring a total of 15 aerial victories.  He was shot down in combat with a number of British Fe2b’s, though there are some indications that his interruptor gear had malfunctioned and shot off his own propeller.

Although Immelman had gotten most of the attention from the German press (he was known as “The Eagle of Lille”), it was Boelcke who made the most lasting contribution to aerial combat.  A skilled tactician, Boelcke was also a masterful organizer and, more importantly, an instructor.  His observations on aerial combat and organization, known as “Boelcke’s Dicta”, are still taught today to modern jet fighter pilots.  They were:

“1. Each pilot must know about the construction of his aircraft, and the strengths and weaknesses, so that he can get the best out of his machine and avoid getting into situations in which his opponent can exploit the weaknesses of design.

  1.  He must know as much as possible about the strengths  and weaknesses of any enemy aircraft he will likely encounter.

  2.   The pilot must be fully at home in his aircraft as a  result of training and familiarization flights, so that the machine can be exploited fully without conscious thought, the full spectrum of aerial maneuvering being second nature to the pilot.

  3.   The pilot must know all about his armament, so that the right range and deflection can be simply selected, and jams and stoppages cleared quickly and without taking his attention away from more pressing matters.

  4.  The pilot must develop the knack of seeing enemy aircraft without himself being seen, developing this knack of spotting opposing aircraft at a considerable range by constant practice in knowing how to search the sky and what to look for.

  5. The pilot must acquire the habit of “taking in” unconsciously the general progress of the whole multi-aircraft dogfight going on around the individual combat in which the pilot will become involved, so that a third party entering the duel can be spotted and allowed for, and no time wasted in assessment of the general situation after the end of an individual combat.

  6.  The pilot should become accustomed to flying in a regular position in the formation, so that teamwork will improve and each man will get used to flying with the same companions.

  7.   The pilot must memorize a number of rendezvous points in the area, so that if the formation is split up, lost pilots can pick up the formation again by circling over the rendezvous point just under the clouds (aircraft over clouds being very easy to spot) until rejoined by others of the formation.

  8.   Formation is to be kept at all times, leaving the leader to spot the opposition while the others cover his and each others’ tail by constant vigilance, unless another pilot spots the opposition first and signals the leader by moving ahead and waggling his wings before turning in the direction of the opposition.

  9.  The leader will signal the best method of attack, using all the advantages of sun, cloud, haze, and rain, but always attacks will be from above where possible.

  10.  Once combat has been joined in a dogfight, it is every man for himself, but it is essential to keep a cool head and courting disaster to try to evade the attacker by the execution of copybook aerobatics such as loops and half-rolls.

  11.  The use of smooth executed, predictable maneuvers in combat is futile.  One should always turn into the attacker so that a circling combat will ensue; here it is essential to turn as tight as possible to try to close up on the attacker and dispatch him with an accurate burst of machine-gun fire.

  12.  It is insensible to run from a fight with an aircraft of equal performance, unless some tactical consideration gives the pursued a considerable advantage.

  13.  To be avoided at all costs are jinking maneuvers, for the pursuer can always cut across the corner so formed and make up the necessary distance on the pursued aircraft.”

By 1916, the French and British were introducing new fighter planes to combat the Eindekkers.  Although most of the aircraft in World War One were biplanes, the first two successful fighters, the French Morane and the German Eindekker, were both monoplanes. Although the early monoplanes had sufficient lift to carry a pilot, a single machine gun and a small engine, the limitations proved to be too crippling – the small engine didn’t produce enough speed to catch the spotter planes.  All the later fighters from both sides were biplanes, which allowed them to carry bigger engines and more armament.

The Entente responses to the Fokker Scourge were the Nieuport 11 and the Airco DH-2.  Rather than the interruptor gear system, however, they used two different methods to mount their guns.  The French Nieuport 11, known as “le Bébé”, had a single Lewis light machine gun that was mounted on the upper wing, where it fired above the arc of the propeller, and could be swung back on a hinge, towards the cockpit, for reloading and unjamming.  The British DH-2, by contrast, was a “pusher”, with the engine and propeller located behind the cockpit, allowing the machine gun to be put at the front of the pilot’s nacelle without obstruction.

With the DH-2 and Nieuport 11 fighters, the British and French outclassed the Eindekker and established air superiority, ending the Fokker Scourge.

In response, in mid-1916, the German air force was re-organized.  Instead of small two- or three-man patrols, German planes were grouped into squadrons called Jagdstaffel, or Jasta.  Because the German forces were outnumbered by the British and French, the use of large squadrons allowed the Germans to move their resources where they were needed and to gain local superiority at important spots. Boelcke, Germany’s highest-scoring ace with 40 victories, was given command of Jasta 2, and was given authority to handpick his own pilots from any other German air unit.  Boelcke then drilled his new pilots (whom he referred to as his “lion cubs”) relentlessly in aerial tactics, and in combat, often flew above them, watching their progress and intervening if they got into trouble.

In September 1916, Boelcke toured the German aviation units along the Eastern Front, looking for talented fliers for his new Jasta 2 squadron.   One of the “lion cubs” he picked was a cavalry officer turned pilot, named Manfred von Richthofen.

Richthofen soon became Boelcke’s star pupil.  On Jasta 2’s first combat flight, on September 17, 1916, Richthofen scored his first officially recognized aerial victory, shooting down a British Fe-2 “pusher” near Verdun.  Within a few weeks, Richthofen was a double ace with ten confirmed victories.

On October 28, 1916, though, disaster struck Jasta 2.  During a patrol, Boelcke was leading four of his “lion cubs”, including Richthofen, when they saw a flight of six DH-2’s attacking a German spotter plane, and dove to attack.  The DH-2’s were led by Capt. Arthur Knight, a British ace with 8 victories.  During the fight, however, Boelcke and one of his students, Erwin Böhme, both moved towards the same target plane and collided.  Böhme was able to safely crash-land his crippled plane, but Boelcke was killed on impact.  Jasta 2 was renamed Jasta Boelcke in his honor.

Richthofen’s reputation as Boelcke’s star pupil was confirmed on November 23, 1916.  A flight led by Richthofen was escorting a pair of German spotter planes.  When the spotters were attacked by three DH-2’s, Richthofen’s pilots dove to defend them.  The DH-2’s were being led by Major Lanoe Hawker, a British 9-victory ace and a winner of the Victoria Cross, known as the “English Immelman”.  During the melee, Richthofen and Hawker took each other on in a turning fight just a few thousand feet above the ground.  After much maneuvering, Richthofen managed to fire a burst into Hawker’s plane, killing him.  It was his 11th aerial victory.

A month later, on December 20, Richthofen again tangled with Capt. Arthur Knight, and this time managed to shoot him down.  Knight died in the crash.  He was Richthofen’s 13th victory.

Richthofen’s victories over the aces Knight and Hawker were not entirely due to his flying ability, however.  Jasta 2 had been equipped with the new Albatross D2 fighter, which far outclassed the Entente DH-2 and Nieuport 11 fighters, and gave the Germans unquestioned air superiority.

Jasta 11 had its greatest period of success in April 1917, during the Battle of Arras.  The British threw their newest airplane models into the fight, including the Sopwith Pup, the Bristol F2A, the Spad 7, and the Nieuport 17.  None were any match for Richthofen and his pilots.  In just four weeks, Jasta 11 shot down 89 British planes, with Richthofen himself accounting for 22 of those.  The British Royal Air Force referred to the period as “Bloody April”.

In June 1917, the RAF introduced a new plane that became a serious challenge to the German Albatrosses–the Sopwith Triplane.  The Sopwith was maneuverable and had a tremendous rate of climb, which made it a nimble dogfighter, but the increased drag from its three wings made it slower and decreased its range.   The triplane proved itself in combat when a patrol of 6 Albatross D5’s led by 30-victory ace Karl Allmenröder encountered a flight of 6 Sopwith Triplanes led by 16-victory British ace Ray Collishaw.  The two aces drifted away from the melee and carried out a one-on-one fight, with Collishaw managing to get behind Allmenröder and shoot him down. The 21-year old Allmenröder was the second-highest scoring German ace at the time, behind Richthofen.  He had been awarded the Pour le Merite only two weeks before.

As the Albatross D series became outclassed by new Entente fighters, the Germans were working on replacements.  Anthony Fokker had been impressed by the performance of the Sopwith Triplane, and in September 1917 he introduced the Fokker Dr1 triplane.  Richthofen received one of the first of the triplanes, and on his first patrol in it, accompanied by 5 Albatrosses, he shot down a Sopwith Pup.  It was his 61st victory, and the first in the airplane that would be inextricably linked with his name.

Newer Entente airplanes, however, would soon give air superiority back to the British and French.  On September 21, 1917, while on a solo patrol, Richthofen Circus member Werner Voss, in his Dr1, came across a new British plane, the SE5, that was straggling behind its flight.  The “straggler”, however, turned out to be the bait in an ambush, and Voss was jumped by a flight from James McCudden’s squadron—all 7 members of the group were British aces.  Voss flew magnificently and evaded all the British pilots, until something apparently damaged his propeller, allowing 23-victory ace Arthur Rhys-Davies to get behind Voss and shoot him down.  Voss, with 48 victories, had been Richthofen’s closest rival as Germany’s greatest ace.  McCudden would later write of this fight, “I shall never forget my admiration for that German pilot, who single-handed, fought seven of us for ten minutes.  I saw him go into a fairly steep dive and so I continued to watch, and then saw the triplane hit the ground and disappear into a thousand fragments, for it seemed to me that it literally went into powder.”

Another new biplane introduced by the British was the Sopwith Camel, which would become the most famous airplane of the war and would go on to shoot down more German aircraft than any other fighter.

With the introduction of the SE5 and, particularly, the Sopwith Camel, the Germans lost the aircraft superiority they had enjoyed since the Albatross series had been introduced.  Although the aces of the Richthofen Circus had continued success against the new Entente fighters, the SE5 and Camel were, in the hands of a capable pilot, superior to anything the Germans could put in the sky.  The German air service, moreover, was in terrible difficulty.  The English naval blockade, which prevented raw materials and supplies from entering Germany, had crippled German industry and led to shortages and rationing.  Aircraft manufacturing plummeted, spare parts were difficult to obtain, and many German airplanes were flying with instruments cannibalized from shot-down British planes.  In addition, manpower shortages meant that, while elite outfits like Richthofen’s Jasta 11 were superbly trained and equipped, most of the rest of the German air forces were ill-trained and poorly supplied.

Recognizing that the Albatross and Dr1 planes were falling behind the newest Entente fighters in quality, Anthony Fokker began working on a new plane, the Fokker D7.  Richthofen and his pilots provided a wealth of information and advice to Fokker concerning the new plane.

On April 20, 1918, Richthofen’s flight of Dr1’s attacked a larger group of Sopwith Camels.  Richthofen shot down two of the Camels within minutes.  They were his last aerial victories. The two Camels were Richthofen’s 79th and 80th confirmed victories, making him the highest-scoring ace on both sides during the war.  At the end of the war, the highest-scoring surviving ace was the French pilot René Fonck, with 73 victories.

The highest-scoring American ace was Eddie Rickenbacker, with 26 aerial victories (if his score sounds low compared to the others, keep in mind that the German, British and French pilots flew for years, while Rickenbacker was only in combat for six months).

At the time the US entered the war in April 1917, the French Spad 13 was the most effective fighter it had available. Because the Americans had no fighter planes of their own, most American squadrons were outfitted first with old French Nieuport 28’s, then with Spad 13’s.

The new Allied planes–the Camel and the Spad– gave the Entente air superiority to the end of the war. The Fokker D7, which appeared in the last year of the war, is considered by most experts to be the best fighter produced by any country in the war, but it was produced only in limited numbers, and came too late to return air superiority back to the Germans.

By the end of the Great War in 1918, air combat had fully matured with incredible rapidity. At the beginning of the aerial fighting in 1915, the Fokker E1, the first purpose-built fighter, carried one machine gun, had a range of 125 miles, and could reach a top speed of 80 miles per hour.  At the end of the war, just three years later, the Sopwith Camel carried two machine guns, had a range of 300 miles, and reached a top speed of 115 miles per hour.

By 1918, the full range of aerial combat already existed. Specialized fighters like the SE5a, Spad 13, and Fokker D7 carried out the air superiority role. Long-range bombers like the Gotha and the Handley-Paige carried out the strategic bombing role, while the ground-attack role fell to the Sopwith Salamander, with its bombing rack and specially armored cockpit to protect the pilot from ground fire. Specially-trained Sopwith Camel pilots acted as night fighters, and the RE8 carried out the aerial reconnaissance role. The naval role was being filled by aircraft carriers—modified ships with added flight decks. In September 1914, seaplanes from the Japanese carrierWakamiya struck targets in German-occupied China, while in December 1914, seaplanes from a group of three British carriers bombed a German zeppelin base, and in July 1918, Sopwith Camels launched from HMS Furious attacked another German zeppelin base. The first aircraft carrier with a full-length flight deck was HMS Argus, whose conversion was finished in September 1918.

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