At the outbreak of war in August 1914 the British had organised their air capability into an army specialist force, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), and the Royal Navy Air Service.
The 37 aircraft of the RFC were flown across the English Channel to support the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as the Germans advanced through Belgium and into France. As airpower was in its infancy, the primary role of aircraft at the beginning of the war was for reconnaissance. At the first major battle on the Western Front, the Battle of Mons, The RFC provided crucial information on enemy movements and prevented a complete defeat. By 1915 British aircraft were equipped with radios which increased the efficiency of Allied artillery.
Necessity is the mother of invention, however, and it wasn’t long before aircraft began to develop offensive capabilities of their own.
Initially, the only armament an aircraft had were the pistols or shotguns carried by the pilot which, of course, proved ineffective. The reason pilots carried weapons was because the technology that would allow bullets to be fired through the arc of the propeller did not exist at the time.
This changed in the spring of 1915 when Roland Garros, a French aviator, equipped his Morane-Saulnier Type L with a forward firing machinegun. His aircraft had also been fitted with deflector wedges that enabled him to fire bullets through the propeller and not get hit by ricocheted shots. However, on 18th April 1915 Garros’ plane was downed and captured by the Germans who used the technology to develop an interrupter gear. This gear further increased the effectiveness of airpower as it allowed the newer single-engined German monoplanes to fire through the arc of the propeller without suffering the penalties of added weight.
The ‘Fokker Scourge’ lasted from the late spring of 1915 until the winter of 1916 when newer allied aircraft emerged with this technology. This was then trumped by newer German aircraft such as the Albatross which, in turn, was countered by development of the Sopwith Camel and the Spad by the Allies. This pattern of ever-improving technology continued until the end of the war.
The most significant development of air power in the First World War was strategic bombing. German Zeppelins bombed London and Paris which caused initial panic but did not bring about the collapse of morale which commanders had hoped for. However, the fear of aerial raids led to the Smutts report which created the Royal Air Force as an independent air arm in April 1918.
For the pilots, life was a mixed bag. Being a pilot bought glory and the added status of being a ‘knight of the air’ and as such, included better living conditions behind the front line. This, however, was juxtaposed with the threat of fire, being shot by a torrent of machine-gun fire or plummeting to your death due to mechanical failure. In the early stages of the war, the average life expectancy of a pilot was 6 weeks. By the time of ‘bloody April’ in 1917 this was reduced to 20 minutes. During the last 10 months of the war, the British No. 80 squadron lost 75% of its pilots every month.
Those who survived usually became ‘aces’, the other requirement being 5 credited kills. Aces such as Manfried von Richthofen, Adolphe Pegoud and Albert Ball quickly achieved heroic status in their home countries and provided a morale boost to their comrades. Aces usually improved aerial tactics. Concepts such as attacking from altitude and emerging from the sun being notable examples.
On the whole, World War I had more of an impact on airpower than airpower had on the War. Despite making significant advances, airpower did not yet posses the technology that would make it the devastating force of later wars.
John of Team Gambit