1918: The Last Year in the Air

With the Russian collapse in 1917 and an offensive in October that nearly destroyed the Italian armed forces, the Germans possessed a window of opportunity to break the Western Front before the weight of US armament production and military forces could make themselves felt. There was, of course, an alternative strategy the Germans might have pursued, given the serious political and economic situation back home: a compromise peace in the west that allowed the Reich to keep some of its massive acquisitions in the east. But Ludendorff had no intention of settling for half a loaf when he could have a long shot at gaining everything.

Thus the Germans determined to launch a great offensive on the Western Front in March 1918. Because of substantial morale problems in that theater due to Bolshevik propaganda, they deployed few troops from the east for the attack. Instead, the German high command placed its trust on revolutionary new tactics that depended on surprise, highly accurate, sudden artillery bombardments aimed at disrupting the enemy’s equilibrium rather than destroying his forces entirely, -and rapid exploitation of any and all tactical advantages.

Operation Michael, the codename for the offensive, began on 21 March 1918. Using skillful and disciplined deployment, the Germans concentrated a large number of artillery pieces and a considerable number of aircraft against the British Third and Fifth Armies. The Germans had 3,668 aircraft in the west, as against only 2,271 the previous year. Particularly against the Fifth Army, the German attack achieved a stunning success, ripping the British defensive line to shreds. British cooperation between air units and the artillery broke down in foggy conditions and under the weight of the German attack.

For the first two days German aircraft dominated the skies over their rapidly advancing forces. But by 24 March reinforcing Allied air units had moved to support the Third Army and the disintegrating divisions of the Fifth Army. These aerial reinforcements caused severe casualties to German ground and air forces. Both sides threw their air forces into the battle, regardless of the casualties, to attack enemy ground forces, and the losses in air units were high. By the end of the month the German advance had captured an astonishing amount of territory for a First World War offensive, but in a strategic and operational sense the Germans were the losers. They now had a much longer front to defend, one which was moreover, weaker defensively.

The March offensive presaged a number of German offensives that lasted into early June; some were notably successful in driving the Allies back and seizing territory: But none gained significant operational objectives, and all were immensely cost! Between March and July the Germans suffered nearly 1,000,000 casualties, far more than at Verdun, the Somme or Passchendaele. Casualties in the air were equally heavy. Even in January, before the attacks began, the German air service suffered a loss of 779 aircraft and 241 aircrew out of 4,500 on the Western Front (approximately a 6 percent loss rate). By May the German air service was losing one seventh of its pilots every month – a burden which the training establishment could not support. At the end of April, shortly after he had recorded his eightieth kill, the redoubtable Richthofen fell victim to the guns of Captain Roy Brown or to Australian anti-aircraft gunners on the ground.

By now, both sides were devoting considerable resources to night bombing. The reason for this had much to do with the heavy casualties suffered by bombers in daylight raids. Results were mixed; undoubtedly night-time raids were a great annoyance to the enemy, but the damage inflicted was minimal unless attacks occurred during periods of full moon and clear weather. For the most part, such attacks simply scattered bombs over the landscape. As one British bomber pilot observed in 1917, ‘Experience has shown that it is quite easy for five squadrons to set out to bomb a particular target and for only one of those five ever to reach the objective; while the other four, in the honest belief that they have done so, have bombed four different villages which bore little, if any, resemblance to the one they desired to attack.’

The result of the pressure Allied air forces placed on the German air service was a steady deterioration of air support for German ground forces during the climatic summer battles. Despite the arrival of an excellent new fighter aircraft, the Fokker D. VII, which, as historian John Morrow has noted, had the ability ‘to make a good pilot out of mediocre material’, the German air service made less and less of a contribution to the battle on the ground. The numbers against the Germans and the pressures of constant Allied offensives were too much. Moreover, the Germans could not make good the losses they had suffered in their spring attacks, especially as regards pilots.

On 8 August 1918 the British and Australian troops gained a signal success over the Germans. After a short sudden bombardment that had smashed the main defenses identified by aerial photographs, massed tanks, supported by close air support strikes, got the infantry across the killing zone and through the German defenses – a success that Ludendorff termed the ‘blackest day of the war for the German army’. Yet German aircraft prevented Allied bombers from destroying the Somme bridges and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. But the fact that the British and French concentrated 1,904 aircraft (988 fighters) on a twenty-five-mile front against only 365 German aircraft (140 fighters) underlines the kinds of odds the Germans now confronted.

Increasing numbers of British, French and American aircraft (the Americans flying French and British products) harried the Germans across the Western Front. Moreover, there were few easy kills for the Germans. The British had finally established a sensible training program that prepared fighter and support pilots for the ferocious fighting environment of the Western Front. And the Americans, generally unwilling to learn from the experiences of their Allies, at least proved willing to listen when it came to the training of pilots and aircrew. At the start of their spring offensive in March 1918 the German air service had possessed 3,668 combat aircraft; by November it was down to 2,709 combat aircraft, a 27 percent drop in fighting strength; the decline in experience among the fighter pilots was even greater, given the enormous losses the Germans had suffered.

Admittedly; the Germans never entirely lost their ability to inflict casualties, as the Americans discovered in their attack on the St Mihiel salient. The US 1st Day Bombardment Group lost thirty-one pilots and observers, sixteen from one squadron alone, in the first four days of the offensive. But the Germans were decreasingly able to affect the ground situation. German reconnaissance aircraft rarely obtained a coherent picture of what was happening on the other side of the lines; German balloon operations were virtually shut down by aggressive attacks, especially by the Americans. The American ace Frank Luke made it his specialty to attack balloons; in an eighteen-day period he destroyed seventeen, despite intensive anti-aircraft fire. German air units now had to pull back rapidly to less well-equipped bases as Allied offensives lashed their army back into Belgium. Even the new airfields came under intense attack, while transportation difficulties made it increasingly difficult to get fuel supplies to air units fighting in the west; some German fighter squadrons were limited to ten flights a day during the critical summer months.

Production numbers for the three major powers underline the hopeless position strategic over-extension had created for their air services. In 1918, despite massive efforts to create a command economy that turned out 2,000 aircraft per month, the Germans fell well short of their goal. Desperate efforts did get aircraft production to 2,000 in October for the first time, but that figure was more than offset by the overwhelming production advantage the Allies enjoyed. Thus the Germans ended up with a net minus because their losses were by now so great. Production figures for 1918 underlined the trends that had developed since 1914. In the first seven months of 1918 German aircraft firms turned out only 8,055 aircraft and 9,050 engines, compared to the French, who turned out 24,652 aircraft and 44,563 engines in the year. The British showed an astonishing improvement in 1918, a reflection of Lloyd George’s effective and thorough mobilization of Britain’s industry and resources, British firms doubling their production from 1917 by turning out 30,761 aircraft (plus an additional 1,865 seaplanes). The success was not quite so striking in engine production, with 22,088, again supplemented by engines imported from France.

The great disappointment was the American failure to get a single fighter aircraft of their own production into combat. That would undoubtedly have changed in 1919, but it represented a dismal record, especially given the boastful claims the Americans had made when they entered the war. The major cause of the US failure had to do with the general unwillingness of the Wilson administration to prepare the industrial base for armament production before the United States entered the war. This particularly affected aircraft production. But the young assistant secretary of the navy; one Franklin Delano Roosevelt, watched the botched aircraft programs and twenty years later ensured that his administration set in motion a major expansion of the industrial base for aircraft production well before the United States entered that war.