Air Battle over Lys

During the Battle of the Lys, the German ground support tactics were further refined. All was overshadowed by the death of Richthofen, however.

Ten squadrons from I Brigade, five of them corps observation units, plus two from V Brigade augmented the efforts of Freeman’s wing and III Brigade. Major-General John Maitland Salmond shortly lost communication with all but one of his brigades, and the battle now devolved onto the squadron commanders and pilots, who flew so low and in such numbers over the threatened portion of the front that the danger of collision was almost constant. SE 5’s, Camels, Dolphins, even lumbering RE 8’s and ‘Ack W’s’ were in action continuously through the daylight hours. By the early dawn of March 26, 37 of the 60 RFC squadrons on the Western Front were flying support for Third Army to the west of Bapaume. This crisis was effectively at an end by the afternoon of the 26th, but a new threat arose as the Germans redirected the weight of Michael back to Fifth Army front towards Roye and Montdidier. This thrust in turn became the centre of gravity of the air effort on the 27th, although low-level air attacks were continued on Third Army front through the day. RFC losses were extremely severe, with 13 aircraft missing and 26 shot down or wrecked. Jagdgeschwader 1, patrolling the skies over Albert, shot down 13 British aircraft with- out loss. The Schlachtstaffeln of Second Army also were active during the day, attacking Vaux, Vaire, Morcourt and Bouzincourt. However, they had suffered considerable losses from British ground fire since March 21, losing five aircraft on the 26th, and by now the pace of the German advance had placed their airfields German advance had placed their airfields I far from the action. The attitude of the senior German staffs toward their flying forces appeared to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Communications were intermittent, few definite orders were sent out and even those attacks ordered were poorly coordinated with the ground action. By contrast, the RFC daily became more active, and, although its losses were heavy, it secured command of the air from the Germans and kept it.

The Michael offensive as such effectively came to an end with the German assault on Arras on March 28. The weary, horribly dangerous routine of low-level attacks continued throughout the day, at a cost to the RFC of 17 aircraft missing and 35 wrecked; seven German aircraft were shot down. The attack was a complete failure, and following this severe rebuff, Ludendorff realised his chance of breaking through on the Somme had gone. The air fighting slowly lost its intensity and the huge concentration of aircraft put together for Michael now began to be dispersed.

One further event on the Somme front must be recorded, the death on April 21 of Manfred von Richthofen. Although remembered as the foremost air fighter of the First World War, he was even more valuable to the Germans as an inspiration to the Luftstreitkrafte and the people and as a tactical leader of large fighter units. The manner of his death will never be fully settled. Conflicting claims were made by several Lewis gunners of an Australian machine gun battery and by Captain A. R. Brown of No 209 Squadron. The latter claim obviously was more acceptable to the RAF (the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service were combined into the Royal Air Force on April 1; the former was preferred by the army and, incidentally, the Germans. The preponderance of evidence carefully compiled in recent years suggests that Richthofen in fact was killed by ground fire. Almost alone among the famous pilots of the First World War his name is still widely familiar more than half a century later.

The German preparations for the Georgette attack on the Lys were quite similar to those for Michael. Local air superiority for the period of the initial assault and breakthrough was assured by a heavy concentration of aircraft. Fourth and Sixth Armies had 25 Jagdstaffeln, 17 Schlachtstaffeln, 28 Fliegerabteilungen, and two Bombengeschwader, totalling 492 aircraft. Thirty-eight RAF squadrons of I, II and IX Brigades opposed these units, 17 of which were single-seat fighters, four day- bombing, three two-seater reconnaissance, two night-bombing and 12 corps observation. It is a measure of the extent to which Michael strained the Luftstreitkrafte ‘s resources that many of the Staffeln assigned to Georgette were borrowed from the armies actively engaged on the Somme.

Grounded by fog

The air fighting in April was uncannily like that of the previous month. Even the first day was almost an exact replica of March 21. The thick fog that on the morning of April 9 shielded the shattering assault on the Portuguese 2nd Division also effectively kept both sides from flying until the early afternoon. After 1400 hours the Camels of 203 and 210 Squadrons and No 40 Squadron’s SE 5’s carried out intermittent bombing and strafing attacks against the Germans. Air opposition was light, both sides concentrating on low- level work. As in March, hasty evacuation of many British airfields was made necessary by the speed of the German advance, and the commanding officer of No 208 Squadron, unable to fly his aircraft out in the fog, burned 18 Camels in the middle of his airfield and evacuated the squadron’s personnel by motor transport.

The next day the battle spread to cover most of the region between Ypres and Bethune. Once again fog kept the aircraft on the ground until the afternoon, when both the RFC and the Germans were out in force. On First Army’s front, Nos 203, 4 Australian, 210, 19, 40 and 18 Squadrons carried out extensive attacks against German infantry advancing in front of Merville, while the SE 5’s of No 1 carried almost the entire burden for Second Army. Losses, which on the previous day had been only one British and four German aircraft, now began to mount, as a result of machine gun fire from the ground for the most part; four RAF aircraft and seven German were shot down on April 10. The same weather and air combat patterns were repeated on the 11th, with the losses on both sides (five British, four German) also about the same as previously. However, this was the last day on which the Germans were able to use their Schlachtstajfeln and low-flying fighters to assist the advance of their infantry. As had been the case in the Michael offensive, the rapid pace of the ground battle apparently bewildered staffs grown slow-thinking in almost four years of siege warfare, and hitherto unaccustomed to thinking in terms of close co-ordination between ground and air. The German squadrons found themselves miles behind the front, seemingly forgotten. Communications with higher headquarters were poor and orders, when they came, bore little relation to current needs of the battlefield. The infantrymen, who then (and have ever since) regarded aviators as light-hearted swaggerers, understand- ably perceived the failure of their own staffs as the failure of the air force.

The critical day for Georgette came on April 12. For the first time since the offensive began, the morning dawned fine and clear and the RAF began a maximum effort to help stem the German rush to- ward Hazebrouck. One hundred and thirty- seven aircraft from I Brigade attacked German troops and transport around the important junction of Merville between 0600 and 1900 hours. They were joined by the tireless No 1 Squadron and two day-bomber squadrons of II Brigade. Air fighting was continuous and German aircraft were encountered at all altitudes; ten British aircraft were shot down during the day for the loss of five German. Perhaps the climax was an attack at 1305 hours by Nos 210 and 40 Squadrons on German balloons near Merville, five of which were shot down. Four days after the German attack started, the RAF was in disputed but firm control of the air. So weak was the effect of air control in those days, though, that the Germans took no notice of the fact. Although the 12th was the last day of heavy air activity along the Lys, the German ground advance continued until the 18th. Then it too was held, just short of Hazebrouck.

But the last had not yet been heard of Georgette. The main thrust gradually shifted from Sixth Army to Fourth Army and this organisation built up a strong concentration of aircraft for the assault on Kemmel Hill. Fourteen Jagdstaffeln under the tactical command of Oberleutnant Bruno Loerzer, Kommandeur of Jagdgeschwader III, were to provide air, cover over the battlefield, while four Schlachtgeschwader and three Jagdstaffeln were assigned to direct support of the three attacking corps. Twelve Fliegerabteilungen handled artillery spotting and reconnaissance for the attacking army.

At 0600 hours on April 25 the assault on Kemmel Hill marked the first large scale use of tactical aircraft from the out- set of an offensive battle. The attacking German divisions were preceded by 16 Schlachtstaffeln flying in a long sawtooth formation that swept over No-Man’s Land like a mowing machine. These 96 aircraft fired over 60,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition and dropped 700 bombs; they then split up into units of two or three aircraft which proceeded independently, attacking targets of opportunity behind the British and French lines. Loerzer’s fighter Staffeln maintained absolute control over the battlefield, shooting down four British aircraft for no losses of their own. Indeed only one Fourth Army aircraft was lost during the entire day.