*** World War I: Aerial War

World War I: Aerial Warfare

Wirld war I Zeppelins
Figure 1.--The Germans used Zeppelins for bombing raids on Britain. They had little military impact and after the British began shooting them down, the Germans concluded that the craft were of no military value. The raids had, however, a substanbtial impact on the British public and was one reason that the British after the War built a sophisticated air defense system. This French postcard is undated, but was probably sent about 1915. The caption has the little boy saying to his mother, "Maman il est sale ballon Boche ... y p�te." That translates as, "Mommy it is the dirty German (Boche is the pejorative French word for German) balloon ... it farts." (Notice the black smoke and fumes coming out of the Zephlin.) A French reader provides a better translation, "Mommy, how dirty is this bursting Boche balloon... he is really farting!" The French sentence is suitably childish as if the boy is talking. A French reader tells us, "Today, we never will use such a quote written like this. For example "Y" will be written "il" (it). Publisher/series: Gloria., no.180. Click on the image to see a discussion of translation and the address and short message on the back.

Military airplanes when the war began were primitive, unarmed craft. Many military experts dismissed them as a weapon of war. At the time, the principle reconnaissance tool was the cavalry. Machine guns soon put an end to cavalry and commanders began turning to airplanes. The major role of the air arm became reconnaissance. It was a French pilot who spotted the deformation in the German lines that resulted in the Miracle on the Marne (1914). Reconnaissance and artillery spotting became the major role of the air arm during the war. Stunning technical advances occurred throughout the War as air superiority sung back and forth between the Germans and Allies. The Allies could out build the Germans, but the Germans came up with important advances that at time gave them air superiority over the trenches. Flying was one of the most dangerous activities in the War. A new pilot arriving at the front had on average only a few weeks to live. The Germans attempted to use Zeppelins as bombers, but they proved easy targets for fighters. Fixed-wing bombers were not employed to any extent because they were still being developed. Both sides were, however, preparing bombing operations had the War lasted into 1919.

Early Aviation

The first heavier than air flight was conducted by the Wright brothers in America (1903). People in Europe and America were fascinated. We note many postcards with children in mock-up aircraft. We note Other individuals were working on flight at the time. The Wrights managed to figure out how to control a plane in flight. This put them several years ahead of other designers. The American military gave little attention to aviation. Thus when American entered World War I (1917), American aviators had to use French planes. Early planes were dangerous because they lacked the flight controls the Wrights developed. Individuals in all the major European countries were working on aviation. One of the most active countries was France. Some of the designs which followed the Wright brothers were rather fanciful. France emerged as a leader in the aviation industry. It had active designers and was the first country where independent companies were formed to building aircraft. Gabriel Voisin and Ernest Archdeacon's organized the Syndicat d'Aviation (1905). Voison's early planes were not very successful and could not compete with the Wright fliers. Gradually Voison and other designers improved their designs. Voison built planes during the War not only for France, but also Belgium, Britain and Russia. Henri Farman also established an aircraft plant beginning with a Voison plane. His plant began production (1909). He perfected controls and added a50-horsepower Gnôme rotary engine. His plane would be the most widely used aircraft in the years before World War I. Farman partnered with his brother Maurice creating the Société Henri et Maurice Farman. The Farnham plant was the largest aircraft plant in the world and as a result, their planes were the most widely used during the war. They produced both reconnaissance planes and bombers. Louis Breguet began with “gyroplanes” (1907), but soon turned to fixed-wing aircraft. The Breguet Bre. 14 was rolled out during the War (1917). Aviation experts judge it the best French design of the War. Edouard de Niéupor founded the Société Anonyme des Establissements Nieuport (1910). It was another important French aircraft company. A Nieuport plane was one of three planes chosen by the French Air Forces (1911). The plane was the first aircraft fitted with a permanently installed machine gun (1912). Nieuport 11s and 17s were extensively used used in the War by both the French and the American Expeditionary Forces. They were also used by Belgium, Britain, Italy, and Russia. Anthony Fokker in the Netherlands built and flew his first plane (1910). The Germans who were behind the French turned to Fokker to help them catch up. The British War Office established a research establishment at Farnborough. The resulting state monopoly had disastrous consequences for aircraft development in Britain. The result was that the Royal Flying Corps began the War with inferior aircraft which led to the Fokker Scourge (1915).

Military Aircraft

Military airplanes when the war began were primitive, unarmed craft. Many military experts dismissed them as a weapon of war. They soon became critical for both reconnaissance and artillery spotting. Innovations came at a rapid pace expanding the utility of the airplane. Both sides made important advances. As a result, there were sharp swings in the balance of the air war. Because relatively simple steps could make a major difference the balance swing rapidly back and forth. Planes were short down over the trenches of both sides of non-man's land. Neither side was able to keep secret the advances that they made. As a result, any advance by one side was quickly detected and adopted by the other side.


At the time, the principle reconnaissance tool was the cavalry. Machine guns soon put an end to cavalry and commanders began turning to airplanes. The major role of the air arm quickly became reconnaissance. Reconnaissance soon became combined with and artillery spotting became the major role of the air arm during the war. Artillery was the most powerful weapon of World War I. But effectively using artillery required spotters. Successful usage of artillery required spotting so the shells could be accurately aimed at the target. The best spotting platform were balloons because two-way telephone lines could be strung to the balloons. Thus a primary assignment of fighters became to shoot down the opponents artillery spotting balloons. This was called balloon busting. [Keegan, p. 359.] Work was being done on radios for the planes, but the technology was not very successful. They did send Morse code messages. Fighters were needed to attack the enemy reconnaissance aircraft and to protect your own. The air war over the trenches primarily revolved around this dynamic.

Conduct of the Air War

None of the combatant countries began the War with well equipped air forces prepared for combat. In fact, pilots at first had to resort to carry pistols or shotguns aloft to do battle. The initial use was reconnaissance. Even so, the impact of the air plane was felt very early in the War. A French pilot who spotted the deformation in the German lines that resulted in the Miracle on the Marne (1914). The early planes were not armed. Pilots began taking pistols and shot guns to take pot shots at each other. The initial problem was how to fire forward so the pilot could aim is plane and not the gun. The problem here of course was the propeller. A Frenchman created the first effective if primitive solution by armoring the propeller blades. The Germans solved the problem first by inventing the interuptor device. This was fitted on a Dutch-built Fokker plane the Eindeker. The result was the Foker Surge in which large numbers of British and French planes were shot down (1915). It was the Germans who also created the first tactical doctrine of aerial warfare. The author was Oswald Vilkie, a German air ace. He advises attacking from the sunleading to the British phrase, "Beware of the Hun in the sun." He advised fighter pilots to attack only when they had an advantage and to rush in, get in close, fire, and get out. The air war evolved into mass fighter engagements in which fighters in dog fights attempted to control the skies. A low point for the Allies came in 1n 1917 with Bloody April. The Germans introduced the highly effective Albatross plane. It was built with plywood and the rigidity of the fuselage reduced the need for bracing, making it the most aerodynamic plane in the conflict. The in line engines gave it extra power which allowed the Germans to mount two machine guns, doubling the fire power. The Royal Air Corps (RAC) lost 189 planes in April. The Allies had much great industrial resources and thus could outproduce the Germans, gradually leading go Allied air dominance over the trenches in 1918. By the final year of the war, the fragile unarmed aircraft in 1914 had become high-powered killing machines with increasingly potent armament.


World War I was the first important war in which aircraft were employed in any numbers. The war exploded upon Europe only a decade after the Wright Brother's flight (1903). As a result, airlanes (the heavier-than-air craft) in existence on both sides were still very fragile, primitive craft. The most substantial aircraft at first were air ships/dirigibles (lighter-than-air craft). The best known was the German Zeppelins. There were also observation balloons, but they were tethered. Tethered observation balloons had already been deployed in earlier wars, but the massive reliance on artillery in World War I made them very important than ever before for artillery spotting. This was the major importance of aircraft during the war, although other operations gradually increased as rapid technological advances increased the effectiveness of airplanes. The Germans used Zeppelins for reconnaissance over the North Sea and Baltic and then strategic bombing raids over Britain and the Eastern Front. At first the British did not have aircraft that could reach the Zeps. Interestingly virtually unreported are the British dirigibles which were used by the Royal Navy to protest shipping. Eventually British aircraft got to Zeps and the Germans had to scrap them. The Royal Navy used dirigibles throughout the War and the Germans could not get to them. Airplanes rapidly replaced lighter-than-air craft in the air war. Airplanes were just coming into military use when the war broke out. They were used mostly for reconnaissance and artillery spotting, but as newer more robust planes, appeared their used expanded. We see many specialized types being developed fighters, bombers, and trench strafers. Airplanes during the War were primarily used in a tactical rather than strategic mode. There was direct cooperation with ground forces (artillery spitting). Support of ground forces was limited because it was not yet possible to install radios in planes. The Germans began strategic bombing, but at the time the Germans asked for an armistice, the Allies were preparing a massive bombing campaign. Quite a large number if aircraft were used in the War, but several reached legendary status. They were mostly fighters. The British had the Bristol Scout, Sopwith Camel, Spad, and Vickers. The main French plane was Nieuport. The Germans had the Albatros, various Fokkers and the Pfalz. German technology was on a par if not better than Allied technology, but Germany's failure to win a quick victory, meant disaster in the air war. The country's industrial capacity could not match that of the Allies. The Italians had only one plane, the Ansaldo Balilla. Bombers include the German Gotha and the the British Handley Page. The Russian created aircraft, but did not have the industrial capacity to build them in any numbers. The Americans did not yet have an advanced aircraft, but used British and French aircraft. The did build Liberty air craft engines for the Allies. Engines were the major constraint in aircraft production. The American Liberties, but did not reach Europe in numbers before the Germans asked for the Armistice (November 1918). If it had the Germans who were already being overwhelmed in the air would have been swept from the skies. The NAZIs, especially Luftwaffe chief Herman Göring ignored this and dismissed America. Of course this is exactly what happened in World War II. American fighters swept the Luftwaffe from the skies over the Reich and Germany's industrial cities were turned into mounds of rubble.

Air Aces

Fighter pilots were soon being portrayed as modern knights, becoming popular heroes. It was the era of the sces. Each of the major combatant countries had their own celebrated air aces. Verner Voss was an important German ace and wrote a manual on dog fighting. He was credited with 48 kills. Another early German air ace was Hauptmann Hauptmann Rudolf Bethold. He scored 44 air victories. He survived numerous shoot downs and crash landings. He was the 10th recipient of the Pour le Mérite, the highest decoration for bravery awarded by the Kingdom of Prussia. He would be one of the two men from the first cohort of German flyers to survive the War. He was the first airmn in the 2nd Army are to be awarded the Iron Cross. On pilot he was training described him as, 'an Iron Man--with an sbsolutely inbendable iron will'. He was known to cut short his several covelemnces to return to air combat. He was in the air soon after the Germany Army invaded Belgium. One author writes, "On Thursday, 24 August, he made his first combat flightin a single-seat biplane fighter, which photographic evidence suggests was a D.II. a type then entering frontline service. Berthold needed to be helped into the aeroplane, but, once strapped in, he was ready to fight. According to hios unit'd daily records, Berthold 'shot down his sixth aereoplane, north of Pérrone .... During the say's first air combat, Berthold most likely shot down Caporal Henri Dangueuger.... But the Frenchman may not have been able to fire his gun; at this point, Berhold still employed a hawk-like attack, diving down with the sub behind him, a tactic that brought so much success to the Fokker Einddeckers." [Kilduff] The leading ace of the war was Germany's Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, who led the famed Flying Circus. He also developed fighter tactics and wrote them down. Ironically he was shot down primarily because he violated his own rules. Herman Göring flew in Richthofen's famed Flying Circus. An imprtant French ace was Roland Garros, a pioner aviator before the War. His aggresive tactics won early victories. He was captured by the Germans (1915), but escaped. He was killed in the last weeks of the War (1918). [Franks] The most important Americant air ace was Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker/ The Germans had the largest kill counts in large part because of their innovative aircraft, especially Fokker Triplane. The British Royal Flying Corps by 1917 began receiving high performance air craft like the Sopwith and the Bristol fighters and in much greater numbers than the Germans could muster. This turned the tide of the air war.

Technological Advances

Stunning technical advances occurred throughout the War as air superiority sung back and forth between the Germans and Allies. Aircraft cockpits were open. Instrumentation was rudimentary to the extent is existed s all. There were no navigational aids. Pilots had to rely on whatever maps that they could find. Often all that was available was a school atlas or a roadmap. These were often not helpful as there were so few developed roads. Pilots would buzz railway lines hoping to read station names posted on the platforms. The War began a constant spiral of technological advances. Here there were advances on both sides resulting on one side gaining an advantage until the other side answered with more advances. Steadily modern and more capable aircraft replacing the primitive aircraft of 1914. Not only were the aircraft very basic, but the crews were often not sure where the enemy was. And to make matters worse, soldiers on the ground not only had only a basic idea as to aircraft recognition. As if the plane was at a distance, there was no way to tell. Often ground troops just unloaded on anything in the air. Perhaps the greatest advances was on armament. The first planes were unarmed. Then pilots began taking pistols, rifles, and shot guns up with them to take pot shots at each other. Soon machine guns were developed for aerial use. A major advance was made by Fokker who invented the interrupter gear so pilots could fire through the propeller. Pilots began dropping hand grenades, but soon bombs were invented and the needed mechanisms for carrying and releasing them. In addition to armament, major advances were made in both aircraft engines and air frames. Aircraft engines were vital because with more power you can increase the size, speed, weight, and potential of the plane. This meant the range and armament could be increased. Improved nrived air frames added to the all important maneuverability needed for dog fights. Aircraft continued to be wood and doped fabric construction, but if the war had continued there would have been all-metal construction. With the end of the War, advances slowed and all -metal construction would not become widespread until the 1930s.

Country Forces

All the belligerent powers fielded air forces of some kind or another. The three most important countries involved in the air war were Britain, France and Germany who were involved in intense air combat over the trenches of the Western Front. All three countries began the war with planes of limited capability which were not even equipped for air combat. And all three made enormous advances in aircraft design during the War.


The first British air units were formed eight years after the 1903 Wright Brothers' flight took place in America (1911). The Royal Engineers formed an air battalion made up of one balloon and one airplane company (1911). The Admiralty also formed the first naval flying school, at the Royal Aero Club ground at Eastchurch, Kent a few months later (1911). The British decided to set up a combined Royal Flying Corps (RFC) with naval and army wings and a Central Flying School at Upavon (1912). The specialized training needed for naval aviation soon became apparent. Separate organization were establish just before World War I broke out. The the naval wing of the RFC became the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), the military wing retaining the title Royal Flying Corps (1914). The RFC at the outbreak of hostilities had 179 aircraft although only a small number were actually serviceable. They dispatched four squadrons to France with the BEF. Britain sought to significantly expand The RRC. At first they had to but engines from French manufacturers. The Sopwith Camel was one of the best known British fighters during the War. Near the end of the War, the British decided to reform a combined army-navy air service. They combined the RNAS and RFC were into the Royal Air Force (RAF) (1918). The RAF was constituted as a separate service with its own ministry under a secretary of state for air. The strength of the RAF at the end of the War was almost 291,000 officers and airmen (November 1918). It had organized 200 operational squadrons and about the same number of training squadrons having a combined total of 22,647 aircraft. After the War the RAF set up a cadet college at Cranwell, Lincolnshire to train officers (1920). The RAF staff college was opened at Andover, Hampshire (1922).


The French in their military aviation exercises (1911, 1912, and 1913) worked out techniques of using aircraft to supplement cavalry in reconnaissance) and artillery (spotting). It was the French aircraft that supplied most of the aircraft used by the Allies at the onset of the War. Very quickly it became obvious that that cavalry could no longer provide the reconnaissance needed by commanders. Although reconnaissance methods were primitive, the value of aerial reconnaissance was quickly realized. Although the small size of the air units and primitive air craft were unable to supply the level of air reconnaissance demanded. French pilots did supply important information. It was aerial reconnaissance that led to the Battle of the Marne which stopped the German advance short of Paris. The French air arm was not like the French Army itself devastated and was throughout the War capable of offensive operations. The French air force throughout the war continued to be unit of the French Army. It developed, however, a prestige esprit d'corps as a result of its achievement and performance during the War. The French air force was in fact largest and most powerful in the world at the end of the War.


Germany gave considerable emphasis to Zeppelins before the War. Thus the Germans did not give as much attention to fixed wing aircraft as either the British and French. The Germans had 230 aircraft at the onset of the War, but only about 180 were of any real use (1914). The Germans were slower than the Allies in synchronizing firing through propellers. The Germans began deploying the Fokker E.I. (August 1915). It had a "synchronization gear" (commonly called an "interrupter gear") which enabled the pilot to fire his machine gun through the propeller without hitting the blades. This gave the Germans an important advantage over other Allied aircraft. The Fokker E.I and successors, the Eindecker ("Monoplane"). This allowed the Germans to join battle on the Western Front with some success. The Germans were this able to achieved air superiority (Late-1915). This curtailed Allied aerial reconnaissance flights. The first German aces began to pileup notable kills. The first German ace was Max Immelmann.

United States

The first heavier than air flight was conducted by the Wright brothers in at Kitty Hawk, North Carolinaa (1903). The Wrights were Ohio bicycle mechanics without formal engineering training. The Wrights after their success, dismantled their flier and kept their design a secret. This did prevent Europeans from copying their design. It also impaired their efforts to sell their fliers. Europeans who were working on aviation were shocked that two American bicycle mechanics had achieved the first flight. The Wrights managed to figure out how to control a plane in flight. This put them several years ahead of other designers. The American military gave little attention to aviation. Europeans were involved in an arms race. Thus the Wrights turned to Europe to sell their planes. Military spending in Europe meant that after the Wrights, most early aviation advances occurred in Europe. Thus when American entered World War I the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy air components were hopelessly outdated (1917). American pilots had to use British and French aircraft. American aces are well known, including Eddie Rickenbacker, Raoul Lufbery, Quentin Roosevelt, Frank Luke, Joe Werner, Carl Spaatz, Everett Cook, Billy Mitchell and others. The United States Air Service deployed 45 fighter, bomber and observation squadrons. They participated in seven campaigns and shot down 781 enemy planes and 73 balloons. They dropped 140 tons of bombs in 150 bombing runs. They lost 289 planes and 48 balloons and 237 men. The War ended before America could begin to mass produce aircraft.

Other countries

Several countries created small airforces duting the War, mostly with imported sircrsaft. Russia was an exception in that they actually had a technological capability. The Russians had made some strides in aviation, but did not have the industrial capacity to produce aircraft in quantity. Other countries lacked both yhe technological and industrial capability. Bulgaria deployed a small airforce with a mix of aircraft. After the War bef=gan they relied on German supplied aircradt. It was deployed on the Salonika Front.

Aircraft Industries

The Allies could out build the Germans, but the Germans came up with important advances that at time gave them air superiorityover the trenches. Before the War, no country had what might be called aviation industries. The Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics. What existected were collection of tinkers, mechanics, and experimenters. At the time there was no pratical use for airplnes, at least the fragil craft that existed. The Wright brothers tried to build a profitable company selling their flyers to European armies. European militaries in contrast to the United States had huge budgets, but the military establishments did not believe that airplanes were of any real value. Countries were not before the War willing to order substabntikl numbers. Many of the airplne companies were on the rather excentric side. After all not a single unibersity had an avition program. Some companies like Vickers in Britain began to become interested (1911). When World War I beligerants began throwing massive amounts of money at aviation, industries were created. One of the first was Fokkers. The company was founded (1912). Byt only with the War did it become a company of any consequence. The British company Handley Page became a major industrial manufcturer, necessary to build a feet of heavy bombers need fior a strategic bombing campign against Germany. The problem for these companies was that the only imoortabt vuse for their product was war. And after the War German was banned from buildung military aircraft and withoiuut a military threat, Allies Gobernments saw not need vfir guge exoendutures on aurcraft. The companies that would build aircraft in World War II would not be the same that built aircraft in World War I.


Flying was one of the most dangerous activities in the War. A new pilot arriving at the front had on average only a few weeks to live. Nevertheless, there was no shortge of volunteers.

German Frustrations

It was the Germans that took the first steps toward strategic bombing in World War I. The Germans were frustrated by the effectiveness of the Royal Navy maritime blockade which had a significant impact on Germany, especially as the War dragged on. The Germn Navy in particular wanted to strike back, but the strength of the Home Fleet made that very dangerous. It was Rear Admiral Paul Behncke, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, promoted the use of the Navy's Zeppelins to bomb London. Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, was oppsed to limited scale attacks, but thought the idea of setting London ablaze might win the War. The Zeeppilins , howeverm ha only limitd bokn loads. After the failure of the Zeppelin raids, the Germans sent heavy bombers against London. Again there was only limited damage done. The principal impact was on the British public attitudes toward the Germans and aerial warfare. The result would be the creation of the Royal Air Force as an ndependentg service. And a decade later the creation of the Chain Home radar network.

Strategic Bombing

Strategic bombing was not new to World War II. The first strategic bombing campaign was the German World war I campaign aimed at knocking Britain out of the War. The Germans who had expected another quick victory by their well prepared army, were shocked to be stopped at the Marne and the Generals realized by 1915 that they would be unlikely to crack open theWstern Front. Given mounting losses and shortages at home, the Generals turned to strategic bombing as a possible way to bring the war to a succesful conclusion (1915). At first the Kaiser ordered that the raid be confined to military targets. The generals at first may have believed that this was possible, but it very quickly became obvious that with the technology at hand that it was not. And as the Kaiser lost influence, the genrals adopted the strategy of breaking British civilian morale. And civilians wee terrified, but did not crack. The British after a year of Zeppelins raids developed methods to shoot down the slow, vulnerable Zeppelins. The Germans after sustaining heavy losses retired the Zeppelins, but then introduced the faster Gotha bombers. This time the goal from the onset was to break British civilan morale. The impact was just the opposite. The preceived savagery of the German attacks actually increased support for the War and a desire to punish the Germans. The most significant impact of the German campign ws to instill a fear of aerial bombardment. Thus while the British slashed military budgets, money was found to reserch and develop air defenses. thus when German bombers arrived a second time (1940), the Chain Home Network was operating to help defend Britain.

World War II

It was aeronautics that most distinguished World War II from earlier wars. The Germans began World War II with the word's most modern air force. They did not, however, have the largest industrial capacity to build aircraft. The German advantage was gained by a crass building program before the British and French began to rearm. Even so, the Luftwaffe was a tactical air force designed to support the Wehrmacht's land offensive as part of Blitzkrieg. Germany did not have the industrial capacity to build a strategic air force and had no substantial force of plans to wage a strategic bombing campaign. America and Britain did have the industrial capacity to build a strategic air force. World War II, as a result, was the first real air war. Both the British and Germans were preparing a strategic bombing campaign in World War I, but the War ended before it had begun. Thus air commanders when World War II erupted had no real idea how to wage a strategic air campaign. Theorists had addressed the topic, but without actual experience, they remained theories when Hitler invaded Poland launching the War. Nor except for the Germans did they understand how air forces could be used to effectively support land operations. This was in part due to the fact that the Luftwaffe was not created until 1935 and the Germans used officers recruited from the Heer. Britain and America on the other hand had a staff core that were focused on air warfare and an industrial base that could supply both strategic and tactical aircraft. Radar and electronic beaming was to have a major impact on the air war. The Germans introduced jet aircraft. As Hitler delayed the program, they did not become operational until the final year of the War, but it was to late to affect the outcome. American and British researchers were also working on jets, but the Germans had a substantial lead. Allied intelligence helped to reduce the impact of the pilotless ram jets (V-1s). The German secret ballistic missile weapon (V-2), while a technological marvel, had no real impact on the War.


Franks, Norman. Great War Fighter Acrs, 1914-1916 (2014), 152p.

Keegan, John. The First World War (Knopf: New York, 1999), 475p.

Kilduff, Peter. Iron Man: Rudolf Berthols--Germany's Indomitable Fighter Ace of World War I (2012), 224p.


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