WWI Air War: Balkans and Mesopotamia II

The importance of Salonika and the Macedonian front to the Entente meant that such air activity as there was became increasingly well organised. The Germans’ Fliegerabteilung (Air Force Detachment) 30 was attached to the Bulgarian and Turkish armies, with an important base outside the Greek town of Drama, some forty miles north-east of a British airfield on the island of Thasos, itself along the coast to the east of Salonika. At that time Drama was not yet part of Venizelan Greece and the German machines regularly made reconnaissance flights from it over Salonika. However, the British had set up a chain of wireless-equipped observation posts along the front and any enemy aircraft crossing the line were reported to Salonika and Thasos, from where scouts were scrambled to meet the Germans.

Although aircraft on both sides were regularly shot down, there must have been something about the terrain and general conditions that reawakened a spirit of comradeship among the opposing airmen. The countryside which they daily overflew in their small biplanes was extremely daunting, and they knew that if they suffered engine failure or were shot down and injured rather than killed their chances of rescue were slender indeed among the thickly wooded mountains, ravines and coastal marshes, none of which offered a road or landing place for miles. At least in France with its open fields there was the chance of either rescue or capture, unless one fell in no-man’s-land and the aircraft became an artillery target. The weather, too, was unpredictable in this area between the Aegean and the mountainous interior. Storms blew up within minutes, accompanied by violent winds and down-draughts that caused a German observer, unnoticed by his pilot, to be flung out of his cockpit over these same mountains. At any rate both sides regularly dropped message bags with streamers on each other’s airfields with notification of an aircrew’s fate, and even with invitations. On one occasion a British pilot dropped a note that read:

As we have met so often in the air and peppered one another, we should also be very pleased to make the personal acquaintance of the German airmen of Drama. We therefore make the following proposition. Give us your word of honour that you will not take us prisoners, and we will land a motor boat on the eastern shore of Lake Takhino to meet you.

‘Unfortunately,’ the German pilot who recounted this added,

we had bad experiences with that sort of fraternisation not long before on the Russian front, and so an order was issued forbidding us to go in for anything of that kind – and I’m still heartily sorry about it for I should have been ever so pleased to shake hands with those Tommies.

Their refusal was understandable given the reference to the Russian front, long since a byword among German airmen for duplicity and barbarities of every kind. Not only was there a short film doing the rounds of captured men being crucified, but wounded aircrew were frequently butchered, then stripped and robbed of everything including all documents, so identification of the naked and dismembered corpses was often impossible.

In Macedonia, on the other hand, opposing airmen often did their best to preserve the niceties. When Lieutenant Leslie-Moore from the RNAS squadron at Thasos was shot down he was brought to Drama and welcomed in the Staffel’s mess, as was normal. After a celebratory dinner his captors shamefacedly apologised for only being able to offer him tea since coffee had become virtually unobtainable. Leslie-Moore said this was no problem if he might be allowed to pencil a note to his commanding officer that the Germans could drop over Thasos. This read:

Dear Major,

I have just dined with the German Flying Corps. They have been very kind to me. I am going up to Philippopolis [Plovdiv] tomorrow. The Germans have asked me to ask you to throw them over some coffee on Drama which they want in [the] mess here. Good luck to all, A. Leslie-Moore.

It was a shame that when a British pilot obliged, the German diarist noted regretfully that ‘they could not catch the streamer he dropped because a strong wind carried it away into the mountains. But we were gratefully convinced that it contained the coffee we desired. I can only hope that it did not agree with the dishonourable finder,’ a remark that probably reflected a degree of disenchantment with the locals, whether Greek, Turkish or Bulgarian. The Germans generally found their allies amiable enough, but language and cultural barriers often proved insurmountable and there was a complete lack of the rigorous Prussian army-style honesty and efficiency they were used to.

But as W. E. Johns had discovered in both Gallipoli and Macedonia, the real problem everybody faced in the Balkans was not bullets so much as microbes. Typhus felled thousands, malaria tens of thousands. One British Army officer later wrote: ‘When we went to Macedonia, we knew it was a fever country. But no-one was able to realise the full extent of the deadliness of – for example – the Struma plain. Our people sank under the malaria like grass-blades under a scythe. One infantry battalion dwindled from its strength of 1,000 to one officer and nineteen men.’

An incident tangential to the Macedonian front but still worth mentioning on account of its fame was the attempt by a German airship in the autumn of 1917 to take medical stores and other badly needed supplies from Bulgaria to East Africa (where the RFC’s 26 Squadron’s B.E.2cs and Farmans were flying patrols against General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s guerrillas). It was a feat that merely confirmed Germany’s supremacy in airship technology. The heavily laden Zeppelin L.59 took off from Yambol in Bulgaria, crossed the Mediterranean, flew obliquely across Egypt and down through Sudan to the confluence of the Blue and White Niles south of Khartoum. It was little more than halfway to its destination when it was recalled by wireless on account of a false rumour that the German garrison in East Africa had been evacuated and abandoned. Captain Bockholt simply turned the L.59 around in mid-air and headed back to Yambol, where in due course he landed uneventfully, having been in the air for ninety-six hours and flown 4,200 miles. It was an epic flight.


The Italian Front also offered airmen the challenge of forbidding terrain, and this at first without adequate maps. The Austrian maps of the Julian Alps, in particular, proved useless for military purposes, being too small-scale. In late September 1917 the German General Staff urgently needed to relieve the pressure on the Austro-Hungarian troops in Trieste, but couldn’t advance its own divisions without reliable large-scale maps. German squadrons were called in to make a complete photographic survey of the region on both sides of the lines. This involved flying fifty miles each way over impassable mountains, itself a nerve-racking enterprise with the prospect of surviving a crash-landing small and of being rescued smaller still.

After the catastrophic Italian defeat at Caporetto in November 1917, the RFC rushed three Camel squadrons and two squadrons of R.E.8s to the Italian front. Air activity over the front became constant but by now, as in Macedonia, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians found themselves badly outnumbered, especially as the Italian fighter forces were becoming seasoned and effective. Even so, Austro-Hungarian aircraft still managed to bomb Padua, Treviso, Mestre and Venice in December, causing the usual terror and destruction. In fact the air war over the north of Italy had from the first been predominantly one of bombing. The Italian military visionary Giulio Douhet had elaborated his ideas of air warfare well before the war, and he continued his warnings via the press. On 12th December 1914 he wrote in a Turin newspaper:

To be safe from enemy infantry it is sufficient merely to be behind the battlefront; but from an enemy who dominates the air there is no safety except for moles. Everything that is to the rear and keeps an army alive lies exposed and threatened: supply convoys, trains, railway stations, powder magazines, workshops, arsenals, everything.

Today this might seem like stating the obvious, but in 1914 the military on all sides needed to be reminded of their vulnerability to air attack. Immediately after Italy’s May 1915 declaration of war on Austria-Hungary, until so recently its prewar ally, Austro-Hungarian airmen vengefully bombed Venice and Ancona, following up with a further raid on Venice in October. The Italians retaliated by bombing Austrian railways and aerodromes with their impressive tri-motored Caproni heavy day-bombers. Douhet had inspired Gianni Caproni to design this big machine and then ordered by him to go into production with it, an order Douhet had no authority to give and for which he was imprisoned. He was later pardoned thanks to the intervention of the poet, patriot and national hero Gabriele d’Annunzio, who had long been a friend and champion of Caproni’s. Whatever else might be said about d’Annunzio’s egomania, affectations and philanderings, there was no doubting his outstanding physical courage. Despite having lost an eye and been rendered nearly blind in an air crash in 1916 he was not only given the command of a squadron of Caproni’s bombers but flew with them on raids, such as one in August 1917 when, at the age of fifty-four, he led a fleet of thirty-six aircraft to bomb Pola in the south of the Istrian peninsula. So far all the Italian Army’s smaller scout and observation aircraft had been imported from France; but by the end of the war Italy had developed a lively and efficient aviation industry of its own that Mussolini went on to foster with great enthusiasm. In Italy, at least, aviation and Fascism had begun to be close bedfellows, as Mussolini’s biographer Guido Mattioli would observe.

For their part the Austro-Hungarians kept up their own bombing campaign, which in its way was as impressive as the Italians’ effort since they were mostly flying single-engined aircraft on long sorties. Even though by the end of the war Austro-Hungarian air raids on northern Italy – including several on Venice and at least one on Milan – had killed upwards of 400 civilians, and Italian air raids had probably killed a similar number of Austro-Hungarians (the exact number is not known), the most decisive effects of the air war in that European theatre probably came from what the combatants learned for future use in terms of organising an aero industry and the military deployment of aircraft generally.

This was certainly true where recognising the potential of fighter aircraft was concerned. The top Italian ace, Francesco Baracca, fell in flames in June 1918 with a total of thirty-four victories. An inspirational figure, he flew French machines exclusively, mainly Nieuports and SPADs, painted with his personal emblem of a prancing horse: the cavallino rampante. Many years after his death, when Baracca was an enshrined national hero, his mother presented a copy of this emblem to Enzo Ferrari who adopted it as his company logo and on whose cars it can be seen to this day.