Air Warfare – Early Experiences

Closing_Up_George_Horace_Davis

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When the Germans went to war in 1914, they hoped to achieve a quick decision by going around the enemy and maneuvering their forces against his flank and rear. This time, however, their maneuver was planned on a gigantic scale and designed to cover not just a few frontier provinces but an entire country. In actuality, these plans proved too ambitious. While the size of armies had increased tenfold since 1870, there had been no corresponding revolutionary developments either in transport or in command and control. This meant that both sides, but the Germans in particular, still depended mainly on rails and horses for the former and on wires for the latter. The advance, which aimed at nothing less than taking the French armies in the rear and crushing them against their own border fortifications, faltered and ran out of control before being brought to a halt at the Battle of the Marne. The inconclusive race to the sea that followed proved that, in the kind of mobility that formed the keystone of the operational style of war, the Germans possessed little or no real advantage over their opponents.

The struggle of attrition that developed from late 1914 on was in many ways the opposite of the German style of war and just what it had always sought to avoid. Paradoxically, however, that very stalemate was of great assistance in the development of air power and, specifically, air-to-ground cooperation. When the war broke out, air power was in its infancy. Its only previous use had been by the Italians, who, when fighting the Senussi in Libya, relied on aeroplanes to track their nomadic enemies and toss the occasional grenade at them. No country as yet possessed an independent air force (US aircraft were assigned to the Signal Corps), and the method commonly used was to distribute the few available planes to armies and corps, which employed them for reconnaissance purposes. When war broke out, encounters between reconnaissance aircraft on both sides soon led to pilots using carbines and pistols to take potshots at each other. Both sides quickly saw the need to protect their reconnaissance machines with specialized fighters, and so air-to-air combat was born.

By 1916 the air squadrons of both sides-it being too early to speak of air forces-were carrying out many of the types of missions later associated with air power. In addition to reconnaissance and air-to-air combat, these missions included observation for artillery; attacks on enemy positions with grenades, light bombs, and machine guns; interdiction of ground forces; and attacks on airfields, lines of communications, supply dumps, and military installations of every kind behind the front. By the end of the war, both sides had added strategic bombing aimed at the enemy’s civilian war industries, transportation networks, and centers of population to their repertoire . However, the scale on which the last-named type of missions were carried out was minuscule, proving to be almost irrelevant to the outcome of the conflict.

Air-to-air combat and strategic bombing constitute independent missions that can be carried out even in the absence of good air-to-ground and ground-to-air communications. However, if air power is to be of assistance to armies in the field, it is critical that good communications be established between them. In fact, though a few aircraft were equipped with primitive radios beginning in 1918, no such communications were available to any belligerent during World War I. Pilots had to make do with improvised devices. They tried to communicate with the ground by wagging their wings, giving blasts on horns, writing out messages on pieces of paper that were then wrapped around weights or put into containers and dropped overboard. Conversely, ground troops who wanted to communicate with friendly aircraft or simply to make sure that their own positions would not be bombed or strafed by them had to rely on pieces of colored cloth, smoke, and flare signals fired from Very pistols.

The stationary nature of the war made it easier to use such primitive communications for air-to-ground cooperation. Except in darkness or when the weather was bad, the massive trench systems bisecting the countryside to a depth of several miles on each side constituted the best possible means of identifying the location of one’s own troops and that of the enemy. This made it relatively easy for pilots to avoid attacks on friendly forces. Also, since the absence of operational freedom meant that the vast majority of large-scale moves on both sides were purely frontal, there was normally no clear center of gravity or decisive point. Under such circumstances, the decision as to which enemy forces to attack and when and where to attack them was less an operational problem than a technical and tactical one. In other words, what support air power could give to ground forces was made possible precisely by the fact that the war was, for the most part, not fluid but rigid. Conversely, if air power was to be effectively used in the kind of operational war beloved by the Germans, then a lot would depend on devising better technical means for air-to-ground and ground-to-air communications-a point that was not wasted on the air force commanders of the time.

Stalemate at the front also had the effect of shifting the main burden to each country’s demographic-economic-industrial basis. In this competition, the Germans were confronted by the combined resources of almost the entire world and were, as they had always feared, unable to match their enemies in the long run. Much of their conduct of the war can therefore be seen as a series of attempts to break the deadlock and restore operational freedom, first in the east and then-having gained the upper hand there-in the west. As the ultimate failure of the great 1918 offensives showed, the technical means that would enable logistic support to follow on the heels of rapidly advancing assault troops and the troops themselves to be commanded by rear headquarters were just not available.

In the end, operational success eluded the Germans. Still, their ability to punch holes through the Allied trench systems was demonstrated time and again, thus showing that they were at least tactically on the right track.

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