Air Power in World War 1

Amongst the many technological innovations introduced as a part of the First World War, the rapid development of war in the air was one of the most significant. In this article, we will look at the development of the military use of air power and how the First World War acted pioneered air power in later conflicts.

The earliest use of air power can be traced to stationary tethered balloons used in the late Napoleonic and in the American Civil War. Designed as platforms from which enemy troop movements and formations could be mapped, balloons allowed accurate information on troop dispositions to be relayed to the artillery that could then fire, receive firing corrections and eventually bring accurate shelling on areas invisible to the ground observer.

An immediate consequence of this development was that counter measures were introduced and, in the case of tethered balloons, they were vulnerable to enemy ground fire. Often this meant that balloons were deployed further back from the front or higher in the air, limiting their effectiveness as observation platforms.

From the use of tethered balloons and their inherent limitations evolved the idea of steerable and powered airships. In this field the Germans led the world after the pioneering interest of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. By the start of the war the German army possessed nine “Zeppelins”, but no plans had been made to use them in wartime. The limitations of lighter than air flight, essentially the limited pay-loads and the vulnerability of their inflammable hydrogen gas meant that airships were destined to be a minor part of the war effort. In order to develop weight-lifting capability, larger airships were required, but this, in turn, made them easier targets to hit.

Despite these limitations, the “Zeppelin threat” had the politically powerful capability to strike at the enemy heartland, bypassing protective armies. Accordingly, the First World War saw a series of Zeppelin attacks on Antwerp, Warsaw, London and Paris, which, whilst of limited military value, had a disproportionate morale effect.

In parallel, the British developed a series of airships for reconnaissance and for use against U-Boats over the North Sea. Away from the dangers of land based small-arms fire, this represented a more practical use of the new technology. The largest class of airships was the Sea Scout, designed for naval applications. Over the course of the war, Britain deployed over 200 airships of various types, mainly in naval applications. It is tempting to see the parallel use of Zeppelins as ground attack aircraft and British airships as naval support craft as reflecting the respective military heritages of the two belligerents, however, this is incorrect as both nations used airships primarily for naval tasks.

The real development of airpower was to come in the advances in heavier than air craft.

The first powered, heavier than air flights, by the Wright brothers in the United States were well publicised and often dismissed as little more than a clever “circus stunt”. However, some in the military were quick to see the value of the new technology. The focus was first, as with airships, on observational capabilities and only later on their use as offensive weapons.

Each belligerent nation developed their air arms as adhoc organisations affiliated to both the army and the navy. For example, the German army and navy both had Zeppelins while the British had, by 1912, the Royal Flying Corps which was comprised of an Army and Navy wing; both sharing a Central Flying School.

By the start of the Great War in 1914, the German Army air service possessed 180 serviceable aircraft, out of a theoretical strength of 230, facing the combined British and French strength of 184 serviceable aircraft.

British use of aircraft in military roles lagged behind that of France or Germany and, whilst this presented a disadvantage in terms of readiness, it did present some opportunities. Pioneering airmen in Britain tended to develop their own rules whilst German and French air services were already established in the military hierarchy and therefore were bound to traditional continental warfare doctrine. Imperial roles meant that conflict could appear in many climates and situations, requiring operational flexibility. However, flexibility did not make up for serious shortcomings that arose at the beginning of the war, for example, the British aircraft industry suffered from having no aero-engine production capacity at the start of the war. This resulted in a total reliance on French engines for the first six months of war.

The main German plan for war in mainland Europe, the Schlieffen Plan, did not incorporate the use of air power. Written many years before the war and updated annually, the plan envisaged that the armies would advance to a set schedule, with initiatives made by local commanders mitigating the limitations of centralised command and control. In all likelihood, air power was considered nothing more than an extremely marginal aspect of the armed forces available and it probably never occurred to the authors of the plan to include a role for the nascent air corps. After all, when planning a huge movement of men and material to a rigid timetable, such a minor and unproven element of the military was likely to be overlooked.

In practice the Schlieffen plan did not run to schedule, as local commanders were often more hesitant to exploit local opportunities than doctrine expected. The deterioration in the plan, in the face of determined French and British defence, led to the stable and stagnant front lines that characterised the majority of the remainder of the war on the western front.

The primary use of aircraft in the First World War was for reconnaissance of enemy positions and mapping the trench networks. The first reliable aerial cameras emerged in February 1915 and were first used to build up accurate maps of the German trench system ahead of the British offensive at Neuve Chapelle; these maps were then distributed to all the commanders involved. The accuracy of the maps available, as well as the element of surprise that was achieved, allowed the capture of Neuve Chapelle within 45 minutes. The success of this offensive meant that aerial photographic reconnaissance rapidly became recognised as a valuable element in the planning process.

The advent of “wireless” radio communication between air and land allowed a much more immediate and devastating use of air power. A system of grid squares allowed artillery to be targeted with accuracy by using “flash-spotting” from the land and the air, with the air element providing the “in depth” observation capability. This role called for a continual aerial presence capable of spotting enemy artillery muzzle flashes and relaying their position to friendly artillery in the form of a “Now Firing” message. With up to the minute information, based on pre-targeted ranges, the artillery could then target the enemy positions accurately; a practice that ended the practice of “area bombardments” by 1918.

The primary role of the Zeppelin fleet was to spot the British naval fleet that was blockading Germany. Zeppelins were used for both offensive and defensive reconnaissance; they were supposed to spot the British force, allowing the German navy to attack when it was in their advantage to do so and to warn when a superior force was spotted. The intention was that Germany would be able to degrade a superior enemy by choosing to fight only the battles that she could win.

Whilst the key advantage of the Zeppelin was their ability to stay aloft for long periods (a vital attribute when maintaining a long watch for elusive ships), their inability to operate in bad weather meant that they were frequently grounded. Both airships and aeroplanes were used by the British navy in their fight against the threat of the German U-Boat fleet and by the end of the war the Royal Naval Air Service was credited with seven u-boat “kills”.

The recognition of the importance of aerial photography in planning offensives, led to the need to deny the enemy the same advantage. The idea of “British sky” over the front, where the enemy could not go, led to combat between aircraft as they sought to deny each other the airspace. Early air combat utilised improvised weapons. In the absence aircraft armament, pilots armed themselves, on their own initiative, with pistols, rifles and even hand grenades. The next logical step was to arm the aircraft itself with machine guns. These were fixed to the front of the machine and aimed simply by pointing the aeroplane at the target.

The problem with mounting a machine gun on the front of single-engined aircraft was that, in order to aim it accurately from the perspective of the pilot, the gun had to fire through the propeller which was mounted in front of the pilot. Early attempts to resolve this problem can be seen where armour plating has been applied to the gun-side of the propeller to prevent it getting shot off. However, the problem was solved most effectively by the Germans who developed an interrupt device in mid-1915 and fitted them onto their Fokker aircraft, beginning their period of ascendency in what was later called the “Fokker scourge”. The air war was rapidly dominated by the Germans and the period that followed saw the emergence of the “aces”; the most famous of all was Baron von Richthofen who had 80 kills to his name (Major Edward Mannock was Britain’s foremost ace).

German dominance early in the war was countered by the Allied development of formation flying tactics and newer, more effective, aircraft. However, in late 1916 the Germans introduced their new, purpose built, Albatross fighter. This development proved disastrous for the allies and at one point, in February 1917, new Royal Flying Corps pilots were not expected to survive for more than a few days as a vicious circle of under-trained pilots, inadequate aircraft and a superior enemy exacted its toll. New allied aircraft redressed the balance by late 1917, halting the slaughter.

Most accounts of World War One air power concentrate on air combat because of its glamorous nature above the mud-bound war of attrition. The attraction of the so-called “knights of the air” duelling it out above the mud provides a compelling story, however, it is important not to lose sight that the core reason for air combat remained the need to obtain or deny accurate aerial reports.

Colonel Trenchard and Commandant de Peuty, commanding the R.F.C. in France and the French Air Service respectively, recognised that the only way to stop the losses of aircraft involved in army co-operation work was to keep the enemy away from them. Choosing to fight the enemy on his own territory showed Trenchard’s belief that “an aeroplane is an offensive and not a defensive weapon”. Much of the disparity between German and British pilot losses can be explained by the offensive nature of the British campaign, which involved taking the fight over enemy territory where a downed pilot could not expect to be safely recovered.

The belief in the offensive stated that the allies should use aircraft against ground targets, as offensive action was considered the best means of defence; it also served to damage the morale of the enemy on the ground, who could now be subjected to attack from the air as well as on the land. Weapons developed at the time reflect this doctrine, for example, the Tracer bullet, Le Prieur rockets and Phosphorous bombs, all weapons allowed aircraft to attack enemy ground forces with greater efficacy than before.

The increasing offensive power of the new weaponry allowed aircraft to offer closer air support to ground forces than ever before. By the 1916 Battle of the Somme, definite plans were included in the plan for the battle to use the aircraft in a ground attack role. The aircraft’s role in strafing and distracting enemy troops during an attack planted the seeds for the “Blitzkrieg” theory of war developed in World War Two by the German Wehrmacht.

At the other extreme from strafing troops, the doctrine of strategic bombing represented a wholly new form of warfare, advocated by certain military thinkers as a potential “war winner”. Strategic bombing advocated bombing targets not directly involved in the fight at the front in an attempt to weaken an enemy’s war effort. Giulio Douhet, an Italian general, claimed that the air war must be used as a “sudden terror” aimed at the enemy’s city populations in order to demoralise an enemy’s home front. Thus, he reasoned, with support from home dissipated, the armies would be unable to continue in the field.

The first British use of aircraft for offensive purposes away from the front lines was by the Royal Naval Air Service. In a break from their reconnaissance role, the first R.N.A.S raids were directed at Zeppelin sheds at Dusseldorf and Cologne in September 1914, while in October a Zeppelin was hit while in its shed in Dusseldorf.

Meanwhile, German Zeppelins attempted the first air to sea attack on naval vessels. This attack was unsuccessful with L-6 limping home with more than 600 bullet holes in its skin. During the First World War, Zeppelins killed 556 people and injured 1357 during bombing raids on England, and, while this was never going to affect the course of the war, it was clear that with more capable aircraft, strategic bombing could be a major factor in future conflicts.

More successful than the Zeppelins were the German “Gotha” bombers which inflicted greater damage, presented much smaller targets and were less susceptible to adverse weather conditions. On the 25th of May 1917, 21 Gotha bombers appeared over Folkestone and killed 95 people in ten minutes. These purpose-built bombers had three machine guns, a 500 kilogramme payload and seemed to be largely immune to the defensive measures available at the time. The psychological blow of these attacks is apparent from the outcry that followed; as F.S. Oliver said, “attacks on the capital city are in the nature of humiliations which must affect public opinion at home and abroad”.

Measures designed to combat the menace of the Gothas were implemented, and added to the feeling that the war was coming to the home front, with barrage balloons appearing on the skyline and anti-aircraft guns encircling London. In a war dominated by aircraft reconnaissance, the bombing raids of the First World War laid the foundations for the main role of aircraft in the Second.

The use of aircraft to supply troops was an important factor in the Second World War and, once again, this practice was pioneered by the air forces of the First World War. The first ever example of ground forces being supplied from the air was at the Battle of Le Hamel in 1918 when ammunition was supplied to isolated Australian machine gun posts by allied aircraft. In October of 1918, thirteen tons of rations were dropped to French and Belgian troops who had been cut off from conventional supply lines by swampland. These first attempts at air supply were tiny compared with later examples, such as the attempted supply of the Arnhem forces during Operation “Market Garden” or the Berlin Airlift after the war, however, the potential was there and recognised.

Another use of aircraft in the First World War was to drop propaganda leaflets. The major problem with propaganda leaflets was how to deliver them to their intended readers; aircraft provided an ideal way of accurately getting leaflets to enemy troops beyond the impassable front line. Where leaflets were needed a long way behind the enemy lines, balloons were often to distribute leaflets beyond the reach of the relatively short range of aircraft.

Leaflets were dropped in large numbers on all the major battle fronts, most notably along the allied front confronting the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where it was hoped that a collapse would isolate Germany from her main ally. The leaflets concentrated on ethnic differences within the Austro-Hungarian army, often implying that particular groups were taking the majority of the casualties while others got easier postings. The ease of aircraft as a means of distribution allowed huge quantities of leaflets to be dropped; up to 5,500,000 leaflets were dropped in just one month during 1918.

The use of aircraft for leaflet drops is another method of war, pioneered in 1914-1918, that has carried forward into later wars; even as recently as the first and second Gulf Wars, leaflets were dropped encouraging Iraqi conscripts to surrender.

In reality, due to the infancy of the air industry during the first world war, air power was not the decisive weapon that air-theorists hoped for. However, the war did prove an ideal testing ground, as the first major conflict after the development of reliable aircraft, for exploring the possible uses of air power.

Necessity and the arms race in the air drove advances in the evolution of purpose-built aircraft for bombing or air combat as more general-purpose craft were proved obsolescent. It is fair to say that the experiences and small-scale experiments of the Great War became predominant characteristics of the Second World War. Novelties, such as bombing of cities, dropping troops with parachutes and supplying troops from the air when supply lines were cut, became common practice and in some cases became the entire modus operandi of whole campaigns, such as the German invasion of Crete or the Allied attacks on Arnhem. The original reconnaissance role of air power evolved as the two sides fought for dominance of the air, developing into the multitude of roles seen in modern warfare.

After the carnage of the First World War it was widely perceived by military strategists that a limited war for limited objectives was practically impossible in the face of modern weapons which had shifted the balance of power from offence to defence. The dominance of defence had resulted in the grinding stalemate of the Western European front and gave rise of the theory of the wars of attrition or “total war”. Total war maintained that the complete mobilisation of the warring nations’ resources would turn conflict into a bludgeoning contest with the weakest nation finding itself unable to fight once exhausted. By definition, wars of this type are fought on a huge scale and are extremely costly.

To the theorists in the inter-war period it was apparent that new weapons would have to be developed to shift the balance of power away from defence. Once this has been achieved, less damaging short wars could then be fought for clearly defined objectives. Air power, as pioneered in the First World War, seemed to hold the promise that would allow wars to, once again, be won without enormous cost.

War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination
White Heat: The New Warfare, 1914-18
The Royal Flying Corps: A history
The First Battle of Britain 1917/18
The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon


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Tracking the progress of World War 1 day by day