1918 Aviatik Berg D.I at War – R. Zanello

1918 Gotha GL VII -Taras Shtyk

1918 Sopwith 2F1 Camel N6603 HMS Pegasus – Taras Shtyk

1918 SE5a 40 Squadron Gwilym Hugh Lewis – Taras Shtyk

Since 1914 reconnaissance had been a vital function of airpower, in the rudimentary period of trench warfare much of it still carried out from balloons, although sturdy two-seater observation planes increasingly replaced them. By 1916 specialized fighters were emerging, to shoot down the balloons and observation aircraft, but also to escort and defend them. By 1917 further new functions of ground attack and long-distance bombing were coming into their own. Throughout this evolution, in a microcosm of the war as a whole, the Allies had the advantage in numbers but the Germans were their equal and often their superior in quality, and regularly inflicted heavier losses. The latter’s advantage arose partly from an early lead in engine technology (assisted by their development of airships), but also from the peculiar characteristics of the air campaign. Two thirds of aerial combats took place over the German side of the line, the prevailing pattern being for the British (and to a lesser extent the French) to seek command of German airspace while denying Allied airspace to the enemy. According to an RFC memorandum, ‘The successful performance of the roles of the RFC in defence must primarily depend on its ability to gain and maintain the ascendancy in the air. This can only be done by attacking and defeating the enemy’s air force.’ Thereby the Allies exposed themselves to the hit-and-run tactics of which the ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen, and his ‘circus’ were masters. None the less, by 1918 patrols by multi-squadron units and dogfights between dozens of aircraft were not uncommon, and the exploits of individual ‘aces’ – many of whom perished during the year – were becoming more peripheral. At times, particularly during the ‘Fokker scourge’ of winter 1915–16, and ‘bloody April’ in 1917, new aircraft types had given the Germans an extra edge, but at the end of 1917 Allied fighters such as the British Sopwith Camel and SE5a and the French Spad XIII (the most manufactured aircraft of the war), had restored near qualitative parity. Although the Germans hoped, with a new fighter generation, to tip the balance back their way, they never quite managed it.

Airpower was integral to the OHL’s new offensive doctrine. Pre-attack reconnaissance would be ‘of deciding importance’. Once the attack began, aircraft should hit enemy aerodromes, camps, and railway stations before turning to their infantry and artillery. Preparations in winter 1917–18 included war games under Hoeppner’s direction. Overflights began in January, using Rumpler and LVG reconnaissance aircraft, to identify targets along the Allied lines and behind them. In keeping with their concern to avoid detection, the Germans maintained high activity even away from the attack zone, while above the latter they tried to disarm suspicion by not preventing Allied overflights. Similarly, new hangars were built all along the Western Front, not just in the designated area. None the less, over half Germany’s fighters and bombers were concentrated on the ‘Michael’ sector, as well as new and strongly armoured two-seaters that were specially designed for ground attack and gathered in thirty-eight Schlachtstaffeln. As of 21 March along the entire British front the British had 1,255 aircraft and the Germans 1,020 while on the French front 2,590 French aircraft faced 471 German ones, but in the battle sector south of Arras the British were outnumbered by 579 to 730. Whereas the British spread their airpower the Germans could focus it because they knew where the battleground would be, and their adversaries were slow to detect it. In fact, the RFC in January and February did spot preparations opposite the British Third and Fifth Armies, including railway and aerodrome construction, forward dumping of supplies, and extra railway movements. It dropped bombs night and day on German aerodromes, railways, billets, and munitions dumps, and although the German air force was deliberately inactive it engaged in dogfights, including one on 18 March over Busigny station that involved Richthofen’s circus and was one of the biggest yet seen. But even though the RFC could generally operate over German lines, its bombing caused little disruption, and it failed to detect the southernmost extension of the German attack opposite Gough’s Fifth Army.

‘Michael’ was accompanied by the biggest aerial confrontation yet seen. The morning mist on the opening days impeded the Germans from exploiting their superiority while it was greatest. None the less, they monitored their infantry advance, and harassed the retreating British, the Schlachtstaffeln going into action on the first afternoon. On 24 March, German pilots observed the gap emerging between the British and French armies. But abundant targets presented themselves to both sides, as the infantry, artillery, and supply trains emerged from cover to cross open ground in daylight, and one pre-eminent feature of the battle was ground attack. A second was that the normal liaison between aircraft and artillery broke down. On the German side this was partly due to an avoidable error, against which Hoeppner had warned: the OHL had transferred from the air service to the Signals Corps the ground crews and materiel needed to assure communication, and inexperienced and inadequately trained personnel replaced them. On the British side, gun batteries in makeshift positions often failed to put up their wireless masts, so that even when the RFC reported enemy troops and batteries, no bombardments were directed against them. Although aircraft-directed artillery fire might have been preferable to using the aircraft themselves for ground attack, in the confusion of the retreat it was frequently unavailable as an option.

In the opening phase the RFC lost many more airfields than expected, but it improvised new ones and moved back its supply depots, while enough reserve machines were available simply to replace damaged aeroplanes without spending time repairing them. Conversely, as the Germans moved forward, they too needed to improvise new airfields, but the old Somme battlefield offered few favourable sites: a problem the more serious because German fighters (typically designed for high-performance interception) had an average endurance of only ninety minutes, whereas that of Allied fighters was 150. Moreover, the RFC could reinforce any part of the British sector of the Western Front in at most one and a half hours’ flying time. For these reasons, after 23 March the British (assisted by French aircraft) regained superiority, which they used to avoid dogfights and concentrate on aiding the ground troops, the Chief of the Air Staff instructing that ‘very low flying is essential. All risks to be taken.’ Over the battle as a whole, RFC losses were twice those of the Germans and many were due to ground fire. Yet even in these desperate circumstances, the British were as usual counting: so that whereas on 21 March they fired 21,000 machine-gun rounds and dropped 15.5 tons on ground targets, by 27 March the figures were 313,345 rounds and 50 tons. At first the priority was to help the Third Army prevent a break-out across the old Somme battlefield, but thereafter the focus shifted south to the Fifth Army. German reports to the OHL testified to the chaos and disorientation caused by incessant Allied strafing, which forced columns to scatter and reduced the roads to chaos. In general, airpower delivered to the Germans the reconnaissance needed for Bruchmüller’s bombardment, but little more: fog grounded the Schlachtstaffeln for much of the first two days and thereafter the Allies regained the advantage. On the other hand, aerial observation told the British much of the story about where and when the attack was coming, but missed some crucial details. At first the RFC gave the ground troops little assistance, but later its role expanded, even if the infantry and artillery played the principal part in halting Ludendorff. On 4 April Trenchard told the Cabinet that since 19 March the RFC/RAF had dropped 319 tons of bombs and fired over 1 million machine-gun rounds at ground targets. It had destroyed 244 enemy planes and driven down 122 more: ‘there was a feeling at the front that we had definite air superiority over the battle zone’.

‘Michael’ set a pattern. British overflights detected the German transport movements towards the Lys in early April, and on the 6th reported advanced preparations against the Portuguese, but GHQ supposed this attack to be diversionary and ordered only limited pre-emptive bombing. All the same, the Germans again lost numerical superiority after the first two days of the battle, partly because the swampy terrain made it difficult to create new forward aerodromes. Fog and cloud again prevented them from maximizing their advantage, and by the time the battle reached its crisis on 12 April the weather had cleared and the RAF been reinforced. It flew more hours, took more photographs, and dropped more bombs than on any other day of the war, firing 114,904 machine-gun rounds and issuing eighty-nine calls for artillery support, while 137 aircraft harried the enemy drive towards Hazebrouck. The Germans’ infantry complained of inadequate protection, and they suffered another blow when Richthofen was brought down and killed on 21 April. In the later stages of ‘Georgette’, although German aircraft contributed to the taking of Mount Kemmel, bad weather again restricted airpower’s role. Overall, as in the ‘Michael’ battle, it helped to stem the German tide in the critical phase, but it is hard to see its contribution as indispensable.

During ‘Michael’ the French had moved aircraft to Picardy to bomb the German crossings of the Somme and the Crozat Canal and to attack enemy troops in formations of up to eighty. But although the French air force was bigger than the RAF, during March and April it remained quiet. Unlike the British, GQG’s approach was not to maintain a continuous fighter presence but to create mixed groupements (groupings) of fighters and bombers for mass intervention in critical sectors. Even so, above the Chemin des Dames in May the Germans again won the initial advantage, largely due to surprise. Intensified French overflights had missed the German preparations, while British pilots in the sector had detected only clouds of dust. On 27 May itself liaison between the Allied artillery and aviation broke down along with everything else. The Germans had just taken delivery of the Fokker D-VII, widely considered the best fighter of the war, and they overran many French airfields intact. In addition, communication improved between the German pilots and headquarters, so that this time the Schlachtstaffeln could act as intended, and delayed French reinforcements by interdicting rail traffic. Yet even when the Germans held so many advantages the French still responded rapidly, Pétain ordering a groupement to depart early on 27 May and the first planes taking off an hour later. Between 31 May and 4 June the French shot down or damaged over 100 German aircraft and dropped 200 tons of explosives, and the Chemin des Dames marked the high-water mark of the Germans’ air effectiveness as of their effectiveness generally. In the Battle of the Matz French fighters commanded the skies two days after the start, and French bombers attacked the German artillery during Mangin’s counteroffensive. The British also assisted, and assisted again against the final German offensive on 15 July, nine RAF squadrons flying down a day beforehand at Foch’s request. Night reconnaissance – which first became important in 1918 – gave warning of this attack, and one of the most striking uses of Allied airpower was against the German bridges over the Marne. In Italy, similarly, the Italians had enjoyed the air advantage before 1917, but they lost it when the Germans reinforced the Austrians before the Battle of Caporetto, only for the Allied air forces to regain it early in 1918 and add it to their other intelligence advantages before the Battle of the Piave. When the Austrians attacked, the cloud was too low for the RAF to assist the British troops in the Asiago sector, but they were redirected to helping the Italians, up to fifty British aircraft at a time in the following days attacking the Austrian pontoon bridges. Repeatedly the Allies deprived the Central Powers of air superiority, and whether over the Somme, Marne, or Piave, they benefited more from airpower than did their enemies.

In the offensive phase after mid-July the Allies maintained this advantage, although it was smaller than the raw numbers might indicate. For the Battle of Amiens they assembled a crushing initial preponderance of 800 British and 1,104 French aircraft against 365 German ones, most of the German air force being still away in Champagne. During the first morning, after the mist lifted, the RAF attacked enemy artillery, rail and horse-drawn transport, and infantry columns, but in the afternoon all available aircraft were concentrated on attempting to destroy the Somme bridges. This effort continued for two days, and led to some of the fiercest aerial combat yet seen. Unusually, the Germans abandoned their guerrilla tactics and also committed their forces en masse, including the Richthofen circus, commanded since its founder’s death by Hermann Goering. On 8 August the RAF lost ninety-six aircraft and on 9 August another forty-five, and by 10 August it had thrown in over 70 per cent of its single-seat fighters; yet although the Richthofen circus was pulled out and never recovered, not one of the fourteen bridges was seriously damaged.

Certainly air mastery helped assure surprise, from Amiens to Megiddo, and the Allies used it to conceal their preparations – for example, flying at night to drown out tank noise – although generally like the Germans they avoided intense pre-battle activity in order to avert suspicion. By September they were shooting down great numbers of the Germans’ observation balloons. On attack days they struck at enemy infantry and artillery, particularly successfully in the Drocourt–Quéant Switch battle on 2 September. On the same occasion they dropped ammunition to the forward troops by parachute, and they used air drops again when the Flanders attack got bogged down in October, delivering 13 tons of rations in one day. Yet the weather continued to limit airpower’s potential. In the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, for example, the Allies assembled 1,500 aircraft, but poor visibility impeded support for the advance, and did so again during the British assault on the Hindenburg Line. Moreover, until almost the end the German air force was a tough opponent. 30 October 1918 was the heaviest day of air fighting in the entire war, the Germans calling on all available forces against British bomber attacks on one of their principal lines of retreat, the Liège–Namur railway. They lost sixty-seven aircraft and the British forty-one. Yet what the Germans were doing by this stage was concentrating their remaining fighters in formations of fifty or more to protect their communications, and when forced to fight they suffered attrition from which they could no longer recover. During 1918, the Western Front advantage slowly moved in the Allies’ favour, and the surviving German pilots felt increasingly beleaguered. They kept going partly because of a qualitative advantage: the Fokker D-VII and Pfalz D-IIIa were excellent aircraft, and even the finest Allied fighters could not match them. The German official history claimed that the Germans shot down over three times as many Allied aircraft as they lost themselves; according to Hoeppner, between January and September 1918 Germany lost 1,099 aircraft on the Western Front, but the Allies 3,732. But other factors weighed against them, especially a shortage of aviation fuel, which began to bite from June–July, and from September fuel was severely rationed. Moreover, First World War air fighting was extraordinarily resource-intensive. By later standards 1918 airfleets seem very large, but the performance of each aircraft was very low. Enormous numbers of ground crew were needed to keep one aeroplane aloft – pilots were only 2 per cent of the British Royal Flying Corps – and by 1918 the losses meant almost entire fleets had to be replaced every few months. Even if the crews usually survived their machines’ destruction, the strain was immense – no fewer than 30 per cent of French pilots and observers in the war lost their lives, most of them in 1917–18. The Germans were less well placed to withstand these pressures, and by the armistice their aircraft numbers had shrunk to about 2,200, from 3,668 in March, whereas Britain and France had Western Front forces of 2,600 and 3,700 and American strength was 740.

The American air service was still the weakest of the three, even though the AEF built itself up from no military aviation at all to forty-five squadrons. Flying mainly French-manufactured aircraft, the Americans saw action from April 1918 onwards. They engaged in 150 bombing raids, took 18,000 photographs of enemy positions, and lost 235 killed in action.160 French losses were heaviest during May and June, but even so they deployed more planes than the British on 8 August and provided most of the air support at Saint-Mihiel. The British believed they had brought down three times as many German machines as they had lost themselves, but this was a mirror image of the Germans’ claims, and all contemporary estimates tended to be large exaggerations. They also reckoned that between 1 July 1916 and 15 October 1918 they had destroyed 6,361 enemy aircraft compared with France’s 4,011, and it does seem that the Germans sustained most damage in the British sector, in the battles of March–April and August–October, although the British air force was smaller than the French one and more of it was stationed elsewhere. At the time of the armistice 84 British squadrons were supporting the BEF, but 4 were in Italy, 13 in the Middle East, 10 with the Independent Force, 18 engaged in home defence, and others employed in anti-submarine warfare. The Western Front was the highest British priority, but far from overwhelmingly so, and the RAF destroyed 405 enemy machines in Italy, 59 in Salonika, and 81 in Palestine.163 And everywhere in the final phases strafing retreating columns became characteristic, whether Bulgarian, Turkish, or Austrian. In Palestine on 21 September, for example, the RAF dropped 9.25 tons of bombs and fired 56,000 machine-gun rounds.

Although aircraft production was a brand-new industry, Allied manufacturers – and until near the end, also German ones – continued to make good stunning losses. But whereas in 1917 all the Western Front belligerents had placed aircraft among their highest priorities, none hit their output targets. The French in 1918 achieved the world’s largest output of aero-engines and the second largest (some authorities say the largest) of airframes, but even so they fell behind schedule. The British overtook them during the year in monthly airframe output, but the goal of doubling Britain’s Western Front squadrons remained unaccomplished, owing to unexpectedly heavy losses, personnel and labour shortages, and mistakes in engine procurement. The American air force proved smaller than either the Germans or the European Allies had expected, in good measure as a result of production failures. Yet on the other hand, although Germany’s ‘Amerika Programme’ of June 1917, designed nearly to double monthly aircraft output before the Americans arrived in strength, delivered an increase, it too was less than planned. Over the year as a whole the Germans’ enemies outbuilt them by more than two to one. This effort behind the lines – short of target for the Allies but for Germany even more so – was the story behind the story of the air superiority that the Allies finally won in the last weeks of the war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *