It was readily apparent that the dawning of 1918 marked the year of the Great War. Much had changed. Germany now stood alone, as Austria-Hungary was a shambles and Ottoman Turkey had become an empty shell. But the Entente was also different from what it had been in 1914. Tsar Nicholas and his family were captives and the Bolsheviks controlled a Russia that was essentially out of the fight. Italy was impotent and undependable.
The United States had entered the conflict but was months away from effective contribution, so from a practical standpoint Britain and France remained the Entente. France, due to the installment of Georges Clemenceau as premier, was recovering some motivation. German leadership knew that the time to act was now; when the weather permitted, there had to be an assault in the west, one successful enough to drive the Allies to negotiate before the Americans rolled over everything. In late November 1917, the new Bolshevik chief of staff communicated Moscow’s desire for a separate peace, and by Christmas a thirty-day armistice had been agreed. With the Russians nullified, Ludendorff was now free to put his plans in motion for the last great German western offensive and thus end the war.
Operation Michael, named for the patron archangel of Germany, was massive. Three and a half million men in 191 divisions were poised to attack. Forty-four of these were storm troopers trained in the new Hutier method to move fast, following a concentrated artillery barrage, through a shattered enemy line. Their job was to penetrate deep into the enemy rear, bypassing fortified positions and cutting them off to be destroyed piecemeal by slower, heavy infantry.
At five in the morning of March 21, 6,473 guns opened up on the British and French lines. Gas, high explosives, and shrapnel pummeled the first line of trenches, then switched to the rear. The guns, like the arriving troops, hadn’t been detected by Allied photo reconnaissance because they’d moved by night. Some ten thousand trains, also traveling by night, had brought the shells, food, and equipment forward. The assault troops didn’t even move into place until several days prior to the offensive. No one knew. And the surprise was complete.
For over five hours the German guns destroyed barbed wire, blew holes in the British line, collapsed trenches, and shredded men. Then came five minutes of shocking silence before the field artillery and howitzers opened up again with a precisely timed, creeping barrage. Storm troopers appeared at close range out of the mist, overrunning emplacements and avoiding strong points. Within a few hours the British had lost nearly fifty battalions, scores of gun batteries, and their Fifth Army was routed.
Heavy ground fog initially prevented both sides from using aircraft, and for the attacking Germans this was particularly galling, since they’d created special army cooperation aircraft and squadrons. Close air support was so successful that the old Schutzstaffeln, or escort squadron, arrangement had been reorganized into Schlachstaffeln, or battle squadrons. And they were just that. By the opening of Operation Michael, also known as the Kaiserschlach, the Germans had twenty-seven of their thirty-eight Schlachstaffeln deployed against the British. But the fog covering the ground assault also prevented the Hannovers and Halberstadts from flying. The Junkers J.I, a startling new aircraft, carried more than 1,000 pounds of armor, two machine guns, and a wireless set. It could be broken down into four main components to be transported anywhere needed. A ground team of about eight men could then put the whole plane back together again in six hours. Nicknamed the Blechesel, or “Metal Donkey,” and weighing a massive 4,700 pounds, this first all-metal mass-produced aircraft was nearly impossible to shoot down.
The J class were armoured, dedicated two-seat attack aircraft; the first ones were nevertheless derived from existing multi-role types. The A.E.G. J.I was essentially a C.IV with an armoured fuselage and a 200 hp Benz Bz IV engine instead of the 160 hp Mercedes D III. Two Spandau guns were fixed to fire downwards, and the observer had a single Parabellum to defend the rear. Experimentally, some were flown as single-seaters with six fixed guns. The J.I was followed by the improved J.II. In total, A.E.G. delivered 609 of these attack aircraft. The Albatros J.I and J.II were similar in concept: An armoured fuselage mated to the wings of the C.XII. The engine was again the Benz Bz IV, a liquid-cooled powerplant. The Albatros J.II had additional protection for the engine, but few were completed.
In contrast, the Junkers J.I was an all-new design, and a quite revolutionary one at that. It was built of steel tube with a skinning of corrugated Duraluminium alloy instead of fabric. The biplane wings had inner but no outer struts; the engine was a Bz IV. The armoured steel nose section was 5 mm thick and weighed 470 kg. The J.I was an extremely rugged aircraft and popular with its crews. The armament conformed to the standard of two Spandau guns fixed to fire forward and a flexible Parabellum. Despite the success of the aircraft, only 227 were completed. The innovative construction of the Junkers designs had great advantages, but at the time it made them difficult to produce in large numbers. The Idflieg tried to get around the problem by asking Junkers to associate with Fokker, and in October 1917 the Junkers-Fokker Werke A.G. was created, but it was a reluctant co-operation at best. The Junkers J.I the best ground-attack (none were lost to enemy action).
By late morning the weather had lifted, and both sides got airborne. The Germans were well aware that the shock, surprise, and effectiveness of their assault would have to quickly overcome the Allied numerical and logistical advantage. The Luftstreitkräfte could muster about 1,350 aircraft between all three Western Front sectors, but they were opposed by at least 3,500 Allied planes.
The British response was to simply counterattack with everything. Scouting aircraft that had never strafed were suddenly thrown into close air support missions. Most of the pilots had no real training nor experience for this role, but the situation was desperate so the Camels and SE-5s loaded up and dove into the battle. Cooper bombs, with their small 25-pound warheads, were carried in racks under the wings. The RFC would shoot more than 28,000 rounds of ammunition and drop 15 tons of bombs on that first day alone.
But no one had worked out the bombing “wires,” or complex delivery and release parameters that would come in later years, so the pilots just eyeballed it. They figured if they got close enough to the huge concentrations of troops and transport vehicles, they just couldn’t miss. The British often flew so low that German anti-aircraft guns couldn’t depress their barrels enough to shoot.
RFC planes seemed to be everywhere and tried to stop the advance. Most of the time they were too low for us, diving down with machine guns going full blast, and never high enough to become safe targets. The chances of hitting such fast moving targets were practically nil, while the danger of hitting our own soldiers and showering them with splinters was great . . . these RFC flyers continued to dive in regardless of the risk.
—LT. FRITZ NAGEL, NR 82 K-FLAK
As in so many Western Front offensives, Operation Michael made enormous initial gains. The combination of heavy ground fog, a well-coordinated artillery feuerwaltz (fire dance), and storm troopers was devastating to the defenders. The thinly stretched British line, which Haig was warned about, gave way. The Germans were shocked to discover beef, bacon, and Woodbine cigarettes in great supply. Also woolen clothes, real rubber raincoats, cocoa, and liquor—all the things they didn’t have and had been told the Entente lacked as well.
All along the southern section of the line, the British fell back toward the Somme. Germans crossed the river at the Crozat Canal, and Saturday morning, March 23, found the Allies in a precarious situation after a German penetration of nearly 20 miles. The French had sent a total of thirteen divisions north but were expecting an attack on their lines as well and wouldn’t send more. The British were also retreating faster than the French could advance, so no link-up between forces was made.
The real danger was losing the city of Amiens. Viewed from the air, it was the center of an enormous wheel with spokes of rail lines and roads radiating in every direction. If the Germans took it, then the entire front would be paralyzed. It was also the de facto juncture of the British and French lines and like the weak link in a chain: if it was captured, the Allied front would split.
But Ludendorff did not attack.
Before judging him too harshly, it’s useful to remember that accurate battlefield intelligence is always an issue. With limited communications and no clear picture of the remaining Entente order of battle, he probably didn’t realize the opportunity that lay before him. He might have kept his right anchored in Flanders and advanced straight into Amiens, splitting the British and French. If the Seventh and First Armies on his left flank had driven directly at Paris, the French would’ve abandoned everything but the defense of their capital. Ludendorff then might have headed for the coast with his center and encircled the entire BEF. With Paris threatened and the British with their backs against the sea, this would’ve been an ideal bargaining position for a negotiated peace—and the end of the war.
Fortunately, just as in 1914, they had no way of exploiting the breakthrough. The armored blitzkrieg thrust that would characterize the German army in the next war did not exist. Most equipment was packed on horses, which were in short supply. Germany had long since run out of rubber, and the pitifully few vehicles it had were balanced on steel rims. Even so, the unbelievable political machinations between the British and French leaders nearly won the battle for Ludendorff.
But it wasn’t enough, and by March 26 Operation Michael was grinding to a halt. The British had thrown twenty-seven squadrons into close air support missions, and the results were showing. The following day they’d drop 50 tons of bombs and shoot 300,000 machine gun rounds at the Germans. The German Air Service suffered from the same supply issues that plagued the army. Fuel, ammunition, spare parts—all had to be brought forward, and it was a logistical nightmare. Fuel, in particular, was becoming a critical problem.
April was tumultuous for both sides. Even though Kaiserschlacht hadn’t ended completely, the British War Council went ahead with its plans to merge the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service on April 1, 1918. This had been proposed back in the fall of 1916 and made sense in many ways. One service would simplify planning, equipment requirements, training, and the command structure. The resulting independent Royal Air Force would also be free of overriding army and navy priorities to focus solely on the emerging business of airpower.
But the timing was ridiculous. The appointment of Harold Harmsworth as air minister was guaranteed to cause problems with Hugh Trenchard. Harmsworth was also Baron Rothermere, the founder of the London Daily Mail and Daily Mirror—a superb businessman who’d never served in the military. Trenchard, who’d never wanted to be chief of staff for the new Royal Air Force, resigned in protest. A few weeks later so did Rothermere.
As so often happens, those at the tactical level simply “make it happen,” regardless of the stupidity or shortsightedness of those appointed over them. The men of the Royal Air Force kept flying and fighting, and France’s Marshal Foch, the new supreme commander of the Allied armies, made it clear that regardless of whatever happened in London, “the first duty of fighting aeroplanes is to assist the troops on the ground by incessant attacks, with bombs and machine guns.”
By the first week of April the last big German offensive was over, and with it ended Ludendorff’s chance to negotiate from a position of strength. On April 9 at 4:15 a.m. the German guns erupted again, but this time the attack came exactly where Field Marshal Haig had expected it the first time—Flanders. Operation Georgette was supposed to be a lightning assault by the German Fourth and Sixth Armies in the Ypres area. The goal was to drive the British back and capture the Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais. Not only would this cripple the supply chain from England, but the loss of repair and logistics depots, training bases, and crucial rail junctions would paralyze the BEF.
If the resources for this assault had been committed in conjunction with Operation Michael, the Germans might have bagged the entire British Army in France and fractured the Entente. The Portuguese were entrenched in the Aubers sector and broke immediately, running for the rear. A general rout followed, as the few tattered British divisions were unable to slow the German advance. Fog again prevented the RAF from getting airborne, and the Germans gained several miles.
By April 12 the weather had cleared, so the RAF was flying and Mick Mannock had returned to the battlefront. In England since January, he’d been chomping at the bit to get back in action. A squadron had been converted from trainers to SE-5s in March, and Mannock arrived back as a flight commander. Fresh from the fighter tactics school in Ayr, Scotland, 74 Squadron was heavily engaged in the April battles. Mannock would shoot down a pair of Albatros D-Vs this day, followed by three more Germans before the end of the month.
Junkers J.I (manufacturer’s name J 4)
The big J.I appeared so ungainly to crew members that it was unofficially known as the “Moving Van.” However, it was heavily armored and ideally configured for the dangerous work of ground support.
For many years Hugo Junkers proffered the idea of all-metal airplanes to a skeptical German High Command. Commencing in 1915, when he constructed the first metallic monoplane, Junkers developed a succession of viable designs that had obvious military applications. His perseverance paid off in 1917, when the government finally approached him to design and develop an armored biplane for the Infanterieflieger (ground-support units). The ensuing Junkers J.I turned out to be one of the most unusual, if not outright ugly, aircraft employed by the German air arm during this conflict.
Despite a conventional biplane configuration, the J.I was unique in several aspects. Its most prominent feature was the enormous top wing, spanning more than 50 feet tip to tip. It possessed a thick airfoil section and cantilevered construction and was made entirely of metal frames with corrugated covering. The lower wing was of identical planform but nearly a third smaller. The intrinsic strength of these units meant that they were fastened to the fuselage only by a series of inboard struts. The J.I’s fuselage, meanwhile, possessed an unusual octagonal cross-section. Its front half consisted of a completely armored “tub” that housed the motor, fuel, pilot, and gunner. To the rear were large, almost rectangular tail surfaces, also covered in metal. In service the J.I was heavy to fly, required a long runway for takeoff, and was difficult to land on short strips. It was so ungainly in bulk that crew members christened it the Mobelwagen (Moving Van).
Despite appearances, Junkers’s design was superbly adapted for infantry close-support missions. Its heavy armor made it nearly invulnerable to small arms fire from below, and it also exhibited good low altitude characteristics. No less than 227 of these rugged craft were built, and they served with distinction along the Western Front throughout 1918.
Dimensions: wingspan, 52 feet, 5 inches; length, 29 feet, 10 inches; height, 11 feet, 1 inch
Weights: empty, 3,885 pounds; gross, 4,795 pounds
Power plant: 1 × 200–horsepower Benz BZ IV liquid-cooled in-line engine
Performance: maximum speed, 96 miles per hour; ceiling, 13,100 feet; range, 193 miles
Armament: 3 × 7.92mm machine guns
Service dates: 1918