Neil Faulkner begins a short series on the history of airpower and its impact on the evolution of modern warfare.
Aircraft are perhaps the most iconic symbols of modernity. The conquest of flight had, of course, been a dream from the time of the Greeks, who had their myth of Daedalus; but only after 2,500 years was the technology, manufacturing skill, and scientific know-how available to realise that dream.
Immediately after the Wright Brothers made the first manned flight at Kitty Hawk on the North Carolina coast on 17 December 1903, there were military implications.
For sure, every nation had its share of bone-heads in their high command who remained blind to those implications. Britain had General Sir William Nicholson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who, speaking for the Army, announced in 1908 that the naval and military advantages to be obtained from the use of aircraft would be ‘none at all’.
The general was clearly not gifted with any great intelligence. This became clear when he further opined that, ‘as soon as we have got, at great expense, and made a very good aeroplane, other nations will make aeroplanes in the same way, and we shall be no better off than we were before.’ The fatal flaw in this reasoning is obvious.
It was already the stuff of science-fiction, where writers such as H G Wells predicted a one-sided war in which undefended cities were subjected to massed aerial bombardment. This was the fate of New York in Wells’ dystopian near-future novel The War in the Air (1908), with Manhattan destroyed in an inferno of blast and fire visited upon it by a fleet of German airships.
Here already, at the dawn of military aviation, was that recurring vision of an all-conquering airpower. Keep it in view, for it is an abiding myth, whether in the declarations of ambitious air chiefs or the nightmares of political leaders. This is the idea of military aviation as some sort of super-weapon capable of winning wars on its own. It has never had this capacity, but the belief that it might has again and again distorted military strategy.
But from the outset, between the snorts of reactionaries like Nicholson and the scaremongering of novelists and journalists, there were more level heads that immediately grasped the potential military import of aircraft. After all, just a year after publication of Wells’ novel, the French pilot Louis Blériot had landed his plane behind Dover Castle at the end of a 37-minute flight across the Channel. ‘It is not the first warning we have had,’ pontificated a finger-wagging Wells in the Daily Mail two days later.
Lieutenant-Colonel John Edward Capper – a modern-minded officer who ran the British Army’s specialist balloon service – had taken a close look at the Wright Brothers’ work at an early stage. As early as 1904 he had written:
If carried to a successful issue, we may shortly have as accessories of warfare, scouting machines which will go at a great pace, and be independent of obstacles on the ground, whilst offering from their elevated position unrivalled opportunities of ascertaining what is occurring in the heart of an enemy’s country.
This was prescient, especially given the exceptionally flimsy character of all early aircraft; then and for some years afterwards it was hard to conceive of these machines, all struts and wires and canvas, struggling to achieve lift and stability, being capable of doing anything at all but avoid crashing. Even Wells’ imagination seems to have baulked at the thought of heavier-than-air machines becoming a serious factor in war: his fictional rendering of strategic bombing involved airships, not airplanes.
Reconnaissance and manoeuvre
It was the reconnaissance potential that persuaded the world’s leading militaries to adopt aircraft. Within six years of the invention of heavier-than-air flight, the first military aircraft was in service, and two years after that aircraft were used for the first time in combat. French Army manoeuvres in 1911 found that airplanes could be relied upon to locate an enemy’s position up to 60km (37 miles) away.
Captain Frederick Sykes, a British officer who had been sent to observe the manoeuvres, reported back that an airplane could accomplish in four hours what a cavalry patrol could manage only in four days. The reconnaissance role of aircraft was now beyond doubt, he informed his superiors.
Within a month, in Libya, where the Italians were fighting a nasty little colonial war, one of their pilots flew over the enemy lines and dropped four tiny bombs on them. Press reports of the incident were grossly exaggerated, but another milestone had been passed: aircraft had been used for the first time in combat not only in a reconnaissance role but in an air-to-ground attack role.
Over the next two years, further live experiments in military aviation were conducted, by the French in Morocco, and by various armies during the Balkan Wars. The results were disappointing. Aerial bombing of troops on the ground was found to be ‘scarcely dangerous’ and of fortifications ‘absolutely worthless’. Low-flying aircraft were also found to be
at grave risk from ground fire.
But all were agreed that aerial reconnaissance was already an indispensable feature of modern warfare. Consequently, when the First World War broke out, the great powers had about 1,000 military aircraft in front-line service.
These were a mixture of tractor biplanes (engine at the front), pusher biplanes (engine behind the cockpit), and monoplanes. The emphasis was on stability and duration rather than speed and manoeuvrability, for the dominant military consideration at the time was the reconnaissance role. The British, indeed, had aspired to design a plane able to fly as slowly as possible, precisely to facilitate observation, and the result was the Royal Aircraft Factory’s BE2, which was to be the principal British aircraft in service during the first two years of the First World War.
The Marne and Tannenberg
That air recon had become fundamental to modern military operations became apparent within a month of the outbreak of war. On 22 August, on the Western Front, air reconnaissance yielded information that General Edward Spears, liaison officer between the British Expeditionary Force and the French Fifth Army, considered ‘probably the most fruitful of the whole war’. The German Army was advancing through northern France rapidly, on a broad front, and in massive force. ‘The great enemy formations, each advancing as if on the ribs of a fan, had been carrying out a gigantic wheel with the evident object of enveloping the Allied line.’
Only now – and just in time – did the extraordinary ambition of the Schlieffen Plan become apparent, triggering hasty rearguard action and precipitate retreat to save the Allied armies in the north from destruction.
Two weeks later, the airmen chalked up a second coup, when they observed that the outer corps of the German sweep, von Kluck’s First Army, had changed direction to pass to the east of Paris rather than attempting to envelop it on the west. Alerted to the fact that an open enemy flank was passing across his front, General Galliéni ordered 6,000 men of the Paris garrison to launch a counter-attack.
The effect was to halt Kluck’s army as it turned to face the threat, opening a wide gap between it and the next army in line, von Bülow’s Second Army. That gap was Marshal Joffre’s opportunity: his counter-attack unhinged the German line and forced a retreat. The Battle of the Marne prevented German victory on the Western Front in 1914.
Air reconnaissance had by then achieved equally spectacular results on the Eastern Front, discovering that the ‘Russian steamroller’ invading East Prussia had split into two halves, passing north and south of the Masurian Lakes. This was Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s opportunity, with their heavily outnumbered forces, to destroy the invaders in detail. The Battle of Tannenberg, like the Battle of the Marne, was in part a victory of airborne intelligence. Hindenburg was blunt: ‘Without the airmen, no Tannenberg.’
The war of manoeuvre lasted only three months; then the war settled into protracted trench warfare. It became, in a sense, the greatest siege in history – a four-year siege on a continental scale of the Central Powers. This revolution in war – a static war of industrialised attrition powered by total-war economies – was transformative for embryonic airpower.
Reconnaissance remained central to the airman’s role, but now the aim was to map enemy fixed-positions – trenches, gun emplacements, munitions dumps, and communications hubs – using the new technology of aerial photography.
A development of this was artillery spotting and real-time battlefield intelligence. Airmen were soon playing a key role in observing fall of shot and signalling to the gunners by dipping the wings, releasing smoke bursts, and flashing coloured lights; and within months some were carrying radios aloft and tapping out more detailed messages in Morse code.
By spring 1915, combat on the ground was unrecognisable in comparison with the massed manoeuvre battles of the previous autumn. The storm of steel on the surface meant unprecedented dispersal, entrenchment, and ‘the empty battlefield’; combat became invisible and senior officers, a mile or two in the rear, lacked the information on which to base decisions as attacks unfolded.
Air reconnaissance became a vital aid, supplementing runners, signals, and phone lines on the ground, in the effort to maintain communications between fighting units and their senior command-and-control.
But, in fact, the communications gap could never be fully closed: the truth was that war was changing in a yet more fundamental way, for dispersal of force necessitated decentralisation of command-and-control. This conclusion was resisted by many senior officers for years – at least until 1917 – but the logic of modern combat, where relatively small units found themselves having to fend for themselves in fast-paced action with modern weapons, was ultimately inescapable.
The airmen were in the forefront of this new kind of war, operating alone or in pairs, fully responsible for themselves, and carrying huge responsibility for collecting and transmitting reliable information on which critical decisions might be based.
And there was something else: increasingly, they were having to defend themselves against aerial attack. Air reconnaissance was too important to be allowed unimpeded access to enemy airspace. As the British General Staff reported, ‘fighting would be necessary on an ever-increasing scale to secure liberty of action for our artillery and photographic machines, and to interfere in similar work on the part of the enemy.’ As the military aviation historian Stephen Budiansky puts it, ‘The fighter was born of the counter-reconnaissance mission.’
The propeller problem
The requirements of a successful fighter are different from those of a reliable reconnaissance plane. The fighter needs to be light, fast, and manoeuvrable, not slow and steady.
Pilot requirements are different, too. Senior officers had tended to disapprove of young pilots showing off by performing aerial stunts – all too likely to end in disaster in the early years of aviation. But for the fighter pilot, skill in manoeuvre could be a matter of life and death. His mission was to catch his enemy and shoot him down, while avoiding having the tables turned and being shot down himself.
Quite apart from the need for sleeker designs of aircraft and more skilled pilots, there was a profound technical problem to be solved with regard to the weapon system. From the outset, airmen had occasionally taken pops at each other when the opportunity arose, but their improvised assaults – such as firing revolvers or lobbing grenades – had been hopelessly ineffective.
A combination of factors – a moving platform, a moving target, the speed of aerial action, the three-dimensional battlespace – meant that sustained long-range bursts of machine-gun fire were the only effective way of shooting down an enemy plane in air-to-air combat. That meant the fighter had to carry a relatively heavy weight of armament and ammo. It also seemed to imply a two-seater, for how could one man both fly the plane and aim, fire, and reload the gun?
But two-seaters were slower and less manoeuvrable. The ideal option was certainly some arrangement whereby the pilot could indeed manage both jobs. The most obvious solution was to place the gun immediately in front of the pilot, and to aim it by flying the plane directly towards the target. Except that the propeller was in the line of fire.
One clumsy attempt at solving this problem was to provide the plane with an armoured propeller. The French pilot Roland Garros, flying an adapted Morane-Saulnier scout equipped with machine-gun and armoured propeller, managed to shoot down three German planes between 1 and 18 April 1915. Tests showed that only one bullet in ten actually hit the propeller.
Garros was then shot down himself and his plane captured. German engineers studied the wreck, wrestled with the problem, and came up with a brilliant solution: machine-guns synchronised with propellers so as to shoot between the blades. On 1 August 1915, a Fokker E.I with synchronised guns flown by Max Immelmann shot down a Royal Flying Corps reconnaissance plane. The new Fokkers rapidly became the scourge of Allied airmen.
The Fokker supremacy
Allied aircrew feared the Fokkers, and for several months the new German fighters ruled the skies over the Western Front. But as always in techno-war – and none is so tech-driven as air war – the advantage was momentary. The Allies were soon hard at work designing new fighters and discovering the secret of synchronisation.
Even before this, air doctrine was evolving. The RFC issued instructions that reconnaissance planes were to be ‘escorted by at least three other machines’ flying in ‘close formation’. The Germans responded by having their Fokkers patrol in pairs or even threes and fours. The struggle for ‘air supremacy’ was reshaping the whole war in the skies, with a steadily rising proportion of planes operating in the fighter role. This development reached a new peak during the great offensives at Verdun and on the Somme in 1916.
Falkenhayn, the German commander-in-chief, reconciled to the logic of attritional trench warfare, aimed to ‘bleed France to death’ by a sustained offensive of unprecedented scale directed at an iconic border fortress, Verdun, that the French were bound to defend at all costs. His army was a million strong and the battle lasted ten months.
Matching this was a German air mobilisation designed to achieve an aerial blockade (or Luftsperre) that would shut the French out from the airspace above German lines. Falkenhayn had 168 operational aircraft deployed at the start of the battle – mainly two-seater fighters – and their primary task was to patrol up and down the front line to prevent French penetration.
The doctrine was misconceived. A recurring feature of the history of military aviation is that doctrine lags behind accumulating mass and advancing technology. The German idea that aircraft could be deployed in a defensive screen was hopelessly wrong.
The French assembled 15 squadrons of Morane-Saulnier and Nieuport fighters. Their commander was given a free hand to devise appropriate tactics. His choice was ‘hunter-killer’ tactics; in his orders to his aircrew, he wrote, ‘The mission of the squadrons is to seek out the enemy, fight him, and destroy him.’
At Verdun, the hunter-killer defeated the blockader in the air. A later British report made this assessment:
Owing to the unlimited space in the air, the difficulty one machine has seeing another, and the accidents of wind and cloud, it is impossible for aeroplanes, however powerful and mobile, however numerous and skilful their pilots, to prevent determined opponents from reaching their objective.
The conclusion – true for all forms of air warfare – was clear: ‘In the air even more than on the ground, the true defence lies in attack.’
The intensity of the air war over Verdun had driven rapid escalation in mass. Ever more machines were deployed, and these machines were grouped in ever larger units. Pilots had usually operated alone in 1914. They had formed twos, threes, or fours during 1915, as either a fighter attack formation or a fighter escort with a reconnaissance plane. During 1916, fighter squadrons grew to 12, 18, even 24 aircraft, and they would fly in V-formations of perhaps half a dozen machines, the rearward planes echeloned back and stepped upwards.
But unrestrained aggression was as misguided as too-cautious defense. Major-General Hugh Trenchard, the head of the RFC, favoured deep penetration over German lines and relentless attempts to bring enemy aircraft into action and shoot them down. This was the British air doctrine on the Somme.
The RFC began the battle with 410 aircraft in July 1916. When it ended, almost five months later, the force had lost a total of 782 planes, and its fatality rate among aircrew was very high. New British pilots, hurled into the maelstrom undertrained and inexperienced, lasted an average of only three weeks.
Somewhere between these two extremes – blockade and deep penetration – lay a balanced doctrine of airpower. This would emerge in the last two years of the war, becoming part of a wider military revolution that would break the trench deadlock and reopen the war of movement and decision.
This article draws heavily on two main sources: Stephen Budiansky’s excellent Air Power from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II: a history of the people, ideas, and machines that transformed war in the century of flight (Penguin); and Jack Herris and Bob Pearson’s Aircraft of World War I, 1914-1918: the essential aircraft identification guide (Amber Books).