A B.E.2c reconnaissance aircraft of the RFC with an aerial reconnaissance camera fixed to the side of the fuselage, 1916.
Passchendaele, Belgium, 1916.
The airplane provided the speed, range, and freedom of maneuver needed to transform aviation from a toy into a tool of war. In 1911 the Italians first used aircraft for military reconnaissance when they observed Turkish positions in Libya. In this brief campaign, Italian aeronauts furthered the military potential of aviation by taking aerial photographs, experimenting with wireless communications, and dropping bombs. Likewise, the French, Mexicans, Bulgarians, and Turks used aircraft in various wars between 1912 and 1913. The United States first flew visual reconnaissance missions in 1913 in the Philippines and along the Mexican border, and Brig Gen John J. Pershing’s celebrated pursuit of Pancho Villa in the spring of 1916 introduced the potential of air observation to the American public. Despite these accomplishments, the dynamic events of the First World War acted as the primary catalyst for all fields of military aviation.
During the epic struggle along the western front, aerial reconnaissance provided the most important use of the new weapon. For example, Britain’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) tracked German armies across Belgium and France in August 1914, discovering a critical gap in the enemy’s advancing columns. As a result, the Allies successfully counterattacked and saved Paris in the renowned Battle of the Marne. In his dispatch following the battle, British Expeditionary Force commander, Gen Sir John French, lauded the exploits of the airmen: “Their skill, energy and perseverance have been beyond all praise. They have furnished me with the most complete and accurate information, which has been of incalculable value in the conduct of operations.” Although not technically reconnaissance in current terminology, the airplane also proved its value by spotting the fire of artillery.
As early as September 1914, British artillery observers sent their reports by wireless. When the German and Allied armies ground to a halt in the morass of trench warfare, the airplane offered the best means to gather tactical intelligence. With cavalry unable to penetrate enemy troops living underground in vast trench and bunker complexes, aircraft scanned the roads and railways behind the trenches for evidence of enemy buildups or troop withdrawals. The introduction of air photography in January 1915 allowed photographic interpreters to analyze long-term trends and subtle changes in enemy dispositions. By the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, the Allies had photographed the German trench system and transformed the information into detailed maps. Thus, the airplane proved useful for all aspects of tactical reconnaissance. According to Sir Walter Raleigh, the official British historian of the air war, “Reconnaissance or observation can never be superseded; knowledge comes before power; and the air is first of all a place to see from.”
Efforts of the combatants to deny aerial reconnaissance to the enemy reinforced the importance of air observation. Tradition celebrates the evolution of fighter planes from individual airmen firing pistols and rifles to hazardous experiments where pilots fired machine guns and risked cutting their own propeller. Although the real beginning of aerial combat is difficult to define, the introduction in 1915 of the Fokker Eindecker E1, a monoplane designed specifically for fighting, increased the lethality of air war. With a synchronization mechanism that permitted a machine gun to fire through the propeller arc, the Fokker drove French and British reconnaissance planes from the skies. From this point, the combatants devoted considerable energy and resources to gaining air superiority. Despite the notoriety achieved by fighter aces and the potential for air-to-ground combat demonstrated in bombing and strafing runs, aerial reconnaissance remained the dominant mission. Air forces sought to provide their armies all-important artillery spotting and intelligence information and to deny these benefits to the enemy.
Although the Battle of the Somme represented trench warfare’s futility and slaughter, the campaign served as a milestone in aerial combat. In this battle, control of the air played a direct role in the outcome of the land battle. Beginning in late 1915, the German air force and the RFC battled for air supremacy over the fields of Flanders. At stake were the abilities to adjust artillery fire and to observe infantry in the battle zone. With an initial technological edge provided by the Fokker, German reconnaissance crews spotted British preparations for the summer offensive of July 1916. Later, as the armies locked in horrific struggle, the air forces introduced new aircraft and tactics in the skies over the battlefield. Although air supremacy proved a vital prerequisite and the jousts of air aces gained public attention, aerial reconnaissance remained the critical mission. When the Germans held air superiority, British artillery lagged in its effectiveness. Similarly, when the RFC eroded the German air arm with new aircraft and tactics, British guns pounded enemy trenches. During the course of the battle, British reconnaissance planes registered 8,612 artillery targets and processed 19,000 aerial photographs used to mark terrain features of critical importance in trench warfare. Although air historians emphasize the Somme air campaign for developments in air-to-air combat, the link of air superiority, reconnaissance, and artillery effectiveness remained the most significant relationship.
By the end of World War I, aerial combat emerged as a legitimate instrument of war. Technological advances transformed airplanes from rickety contraptions to serious weapons. The battles for air supremacy played a vital role in developing the technology of air warfare and introduced the “intrepid airman” as a new breed of hero. However, the Great War played an equally important, although less heralded, role in developing the art of aerial reconnaissance. By 1918 reconnaissance planes and observer balloons provided commanders with vertical and oblique aerial photographs, which enabled staffs to map terrain, mark enemy troop positions, spot artillery, and anticipate attack. Advances in wireless communications enabled air observers to adjust artillery fire to counter enemy guns. Moreover, the volume of aerial reconnaissance increased prodigiously. By the end of 1917, German reconnaissance planes produced nearly 4,000 photographs per day, covering the entire western front every two weeks. By the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of September 1918, even the new American Air Service produced 56,000 prints of aerial photographs in just four days. At war’s end, the US Army Air Service listed 740 aircraft in 45 squadrons with 767 pilots, 481 observers, and 23 aerial gunners devoted to observation and reconnaissance. As a result of technological and organizational innovations during the First World War, aerial reconnaissance emerged as an indispensable means of gaining tactical intelligence.