The Rise of Fighters and their Role in the War II

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Prior to launching their offensive against Verdun on 21 February 1916, the Germans had conducted highly detailed photographic reconnaissance of French positions and concentrated their Fokker Eindeckers, including Boelcke’s squadron, in the area around Verdun in order to deny the French aerial reconnaissance of the massive German troop buildup. This policy of conducting an aerial blockade (Luftsperre) initially proved to be successful. Although a few French aircraft managed to get through the screen of German fighters, they were unable to gather enough information to convince the French High Command that the Germans were preparing a winter assault on Verdun. The critical mistake that the Germans made was to continue the aerial blockade after the onset of the battle. Even though doing so helped to protect German artillery positions, the Germans wasted aerial resources that could have been better used to disrupt the French supply line up the one road—La Voie Sacree (The Sacred Way)—that allowed the French to send reinforcements and supplies into Verdun. The way in which the French employed their fighters is much more significant.

General Henri Philippe Pétain, commander of French forces at Verdun, recognized that seizing air supremacy from the Germans was crucial if the French were to hold Verdun. The French increased the number of escadrilles in the Verdun sector from four to sixteen—including six fighter escadrilles—as well as the number of aircraft per escadrille to twelve. Just as important, Commandant Tricornot de Rose, placed in overall command of the air forces in the Verdun sector, demanded that his fighter pilots fly in formation. Some of the most famous fighter escadrilles of the war, the Storks (Les Cigognes) and the Lafayette Escadrille (composed of American volunteers), established their reputations at Verdun. By August, French fighters had regained control of the skies above Verdun, because of the introduction of new aircraft and because of their superiority in numbers and concentration of force. By tying down German fighters in combat, French reconnaissance aircraft were able to perform their vital role in counterbattery work. Although numerous factors prevented the Germans from achieving their goal of bleeding the French white at Verdun, their misuse of aircraft combined with the successful French use of aircraft was certainly an important factor.

Just as the German attack at Verdun produced a change in French fighter tactics and organization, the British attack on the Germans along the Somme in the summer of 1916 would force the Germans to take similar steps. In preparation for the Somme Offensive, the British had reorganized the RFC, assigning a reconnaissance wing to each corps to photograph the front lines within 5 miles of the corps and a fighter wing and long-range reconnaissance wing to each army. Although the long preliminary barrage that the British carried out gave the Germans ample warning to shift aircraft to that sector before the battle began, the Allies still enjoyed a numeric advantage of 185 British and 200 French aircraft against 130 German aircraft at the start of the offensive. In addition, the British and French had introduced new aircraft that were superior to the Eindecker and would give them air supremacy for the first 2 months of the campaign. Having observed the success of the French at Verdun, Trenchard was convinced that a policy of relentless and incessant offensive against German fighters would produce victory. Although the British did enjoy initial success in the skies over the Somme, this had more to do with deficient German resources and organization, something that could be and would be remedied. When circumstances should have dictated a change in policy, Trenchard stubbornly persisted in his relentless offensive despite heavy losses. As a result, RFC pilots were to endure a similar level (comparative in scope) of fruitless attrition as that suffered by the infantry under Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig’s command.

Confronted at the Somme by an enemy with superior numbers and organization, the Germans responded by centralizing the command of their air service, concentrating single-seat fighters into their own squadrons (Jagdstaffeln or Jastas), increasing the number of aircraft attached to artillery units, and converting four bomber units into heavy-armed escorts for artillery spotters. The British would lose 782 aircraft compared with 369 for the Germans during the Somme Offensive (1 July through 27 November) as the creation of Jastas by the end of August began to have a most telling impact. In September and October, for example, the reorganized Germans shot down 211 Allied aircraft while losing just 39 of their own. Boelcke’s Jasta 2, which included Manfred von Richthofen, was particularly effective, shooting down 76 British aircraft at the loss of just 7 planes between 17 September and 31 October.

By the end of 1916 the basic organizational structure and tactical use of fighter aircraft were set. One major advantage enjoyed by the Germans was that prevailing westerly winds forced Allied planes to fly into the wind upon returning to their bases and allowed crippled German planes to glide back to the German side of the line. The introduction of newer generations of fighters would cause the battle for air supremacy to shift back and forth. In the spring of 1917, for example, the Germans enjoyed huge successes against the British, culminating in the first few weeks of April when the British lost 75 aircraft between 4 and 8 April alone. One of the reasons for such attrition, however, is that prior to the start of the Battle of Arras in April 1917, the British had purposely held back such new aircraft as the S.E.5, the F.2.B Bristol fighter, and the Sopwith Triplane in order to concentrate them for the offensive and catch the Germans by surprise. By the end of April 1917 the tide had begun to turn. British losses for the month were 151 aircraft compared with Germany’s 119. For the remainder of 1917 the fighter advantage lay with the Allies, although the Germans did limit the damage somewhat by combining Jastas together to form Jagdgeschwaders, the most famous of which was Richtohofen’s “Flying Circus,” Jagdegeschwader No. 1, which operated in the Ypres sector. By the last year of the war Germany had introduced perhaps the best fighter of the war with the Fokker D.VII, but the quantitative advantage enjoyed by the Allies more than compensated for the qualitative advantage of the last generation of German fighters.

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