Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 223rd installment in the series.
February 7, 1916: The War In the Air
While thrilling, spiraling “dogfights” between biplanes are one of the iconic images of the First World War, most of this activity took place in the last three years of the war, from 1916 to 1918. In the first year or so there was relatively little aerial combat, reflecting the limited conception of air power prevailing on both sides: scout planes used for reconnaissance and artillery spotting were generally unarmed, there were no heavy strategic bombers to worry about, and designers faced major technical obstacles in developing fighter planes, including the placement of guns relative to the propeller. In fact in some cases, early aerial combat actually consisted of shooting at the other plane with a rifle or pistol (with predictably scant success).
All this began to change as both sides figured out ways to position machine guns so the pilot could use them effectively without destroying his own plane. One solution was positioning the machine gun on top of the biplane’s upper wing, above the pilot, so it could shoot over the propeller – although this made it harder to aim as well as reload. A less elegant (and rather dangerous sounding) solution was to put the gun in front of the pilot and simply affix steel plates to the rear surfaces of the propeller, so any bullets that happened to hit it would bounce off – but this made the propellers less efficient. Another approach involved putting the propeller at the back of the plane, in a “pusher” configuration, to give the gun a clear line of fire, but these planes were generally too slow to catch the enemy.
The decisive solution came courtesy of a Dutch inventor and aviator named Anthony Fokker, who established an aircraft factory in the German city of Schwerin. Probably building on the earlier work of a Swiss inventor named Franz Schneider and a French inventor named Raymond Saulnier in 1913 and 1914, Fokker hit on an idea for an “interrupter” or “synchronizer” gear, which connected the machine gun’s firing mechanism to the propeller via a “push rod” powered by the engine’s oil pump drive, so that the gun only fired when the propeller was out of the way.
This ingenious system, allowing much more accurate fire without as many safety worries, was first employed by Fokker in his Fokker E.I. (above), a single-seat monoplane (Eindecker) fighter copying the basic design of the earlier M.5K reconnaissance aircraft. The E.I.’s debut on the Western Front in June 1915 was followed by a period of terror among Allied aviators, who suddenly found themselves completely outgunned, in what became known as the “Fokker Scourge.” This limited the Allies’ ability to conduct reconnaissance and artillery spotting, in which aerial observers helped direct artillery fire against enemy positions – the most important function of aviation during the war.
With their scouts falling prey to the new generation of fast, well-armed German planes in their own airspace, the Allies were determined to wrest back control of the skies. This led to the design of two new planes in France and Britain. The French produced the Nieuport 11 (below), a small, nimble plane with an 80-horsepower power engine and a top speed of 97 miles per hour, making it more than a match for the E.I., with an 80-horsepower engine and a top speed of 88 miles per hour. The Nieuport’s machine gun was mounted to fire over the propeller (it was later replaced by the French version of the synchronizer gear, which went into service in mid-1916).
Meanwhile the British produced the de Havilland DH2 (top), a rather odd-looking but sturdy single-seat biplane with its propeller in the rear-facing “pusher” configuration. The designers addressed the earlier problem of slow speed in pusher aircraft by simply installing a more powerful engine, with 100 horsepower and a top speed of 93 miles per hour, again making it more than a match for the Eindecker.
On February 7, 1916, the first unit of DH2 pusher fighters arrived in St. Omer, France, with orders to fly in larger formations for protection, spelling the beginning of the end of the “Fokker Scourge” – but this was hardly the end of the German threat. The rest of the war would see a fierce competition between German and Allied aircraft designers, as planes grew faster and more maneuverable, and their weaponry more deadly. In fact the DH2 itself would soon become obsolete, as the British produced their own planes with synchronizer gears, first introduced in the Sopwith 1½ Strutter, which first went into service in April 1916.
Tactics were also evolving rapidly on both sides. One of the most important tactical innovations of the war, later in 1916, was the German introduction of the “Jagdstaffel” or hunter squadron, usually abbreviated “Jasta” – large fighter units which quickly deploy anywhere on the Western Front to establish local aerial dominance. The most famous Jasta would be led by Manfred von Richthofen, better known as “The Red Baron,” and earned the nickname “Flying Circus” because its traveled aboard its own trains like a circus.
With its speed, daring, and one-on-one combat, the war in the air was widely viewed as the successor to medieval chivalry, a romantic form of fighting harkening back to earlier, more “glorious” forms of war; it certainly stood in stark contrast to the static misery of the war on the ground. E.M. Roberts, an American volunteer serving in the British Army who later became a pilot, recalled the attitude of ordinary soldiers in the trenches:
I envied the flyers. Here was I in mud up to my knees either in the trenches or on the roads and getting very little out of the war but lots of hard work. The other fellows were sailing around in the clean air while I had to duck shells all the time and run chances of being caught by the machine guns and snipers. Of course the aviators were also being shelled, but they never seemed to get hurt… To me flying seemed the very acme of adventure and I had no notion, of course, how good the German anti-aircraft batteries were.
Like the cavalry it replaced, military aviation tended to be an exclusive club, the preserve of young aristocratic and upper class men who enjoyed relatively luxurious lifestyles (on their own dime) when they weren’t flying. An Italian pilot, Lieutenant Camillo Viglino, noted: “In those days only men from the engineering, artillery, and cavalry units were permitted to volunteer for pilot training. Ordinary infantrymen were not. Pilot trainees, such as myself, who generally came from upper class families, had therefore willingly left a relatively safe environment for one full of risk… “
Indeed, while flying was undoubtedly more dashing than trench warfare, it was probably no less dangerous to the participants – and training was almost as deadly as combat, according to Viglino, who recalled, “we had to contribute regularly to the purchase of funeral wreaths for our classmates killed in the training course.” Viglino remembered one grim occasion after two trainee pilots died in a crash:
On that particular evening, we all went to a small restaurant that we frequented often and ordered steak. Someone in our group noticed that the smell of the steaks resembled that of the charred bodies of the two men and he said so out loud. The rest of us just continued to eat our steak without comment. Today it happens to you; tomorrow it happens to me. It’s all part of the game.
With aviation engineering still in its infancy, flying also presented plenty of dangers besides the enemy, including unreliable equipment. Malcolm Grow, an American surgeon volunteering in the Russian Army, wrote about an alarming experience over the German lines on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1915:
We were some miles back of the German lines at a height of about 10,000 feet, I should judge, when the motor suddenly stopped… I did not realize our danger until the Captain shouted: “We are in for it now – motor dead – don’t know whether I can plane back to our lines – or not!” In the gathering gloom below, I saw several red flashes stab upward: then I heard a screech and several distinct explosions above us and to the right. With the motor dead, it was easy to hear the coughing report of the German shrapnel. The earth seemed gradually to float up as we glided swiftly down and forward toward the lines. Could we make it? There was no wind to help us. The Captain devoted all his attention to the machine. Again and again he tried to start the motor, but she remained silent… We were whirling down perilously close to the tops of the pines and I knew the machine-guns and rifle bullets could easily reach us as we crossed the lines. Fortunately the motor was quiet as we rushed along, so that we flew silently and would not be so apt to attract attention…We got over our lines and headed for [a] clearing… If we could just scrape over the scrub-pines, we could make a landing… He dipped again and I could almost touch the tops of the pines as we shot over them… We glided down into the center of that little clearing, bouncing along over the uneven ground and finally stopped. We both sat still a moment. The Captain crossed himself and I knew he was murmuring a little prayer of thanks.
Still, there were some compensations for all the danger, including the privilege of seeing the world from a perspective still completely unknown to most ordinary people. Victor David Chapman, an American volunteering in the French air force, described the beauty of the French countryside seen from the air in a letter home in August 1915:
From a good altitude the country looks like nothing so much as a rich old Persian carpet. Where the fields are cultivated one sees the soil now a rich pinky red fading a light yellow, or running into dark browns. The green fields, oblong patches and the brick-roofed villages like figures on the carpets connected by threads of roads and rivers; superposed upon it here and there in big and little patches – always with straight edges – are the woods, a dull, darkish green, for they are pine woods. In the direction of the sun the bits of water shine silver. In the opposite direction they are blue, but the darkest objects to be seen,– making the woods seem pale in contrast.
By the same token, pilots and observers noticed that this new, remote perspective seemed to breed a certain emotional detachment from humanity. Vincent O’Connor, a war correspondent, recalled his thoughts flying near Salonika in northern Greece:
The trenches are like a tapestry at our feet, and we can see their purpose and plan. The sides of the water-courses are white with an inner lining of tents. A village deploys, the totality of its ancient life exposed to our gaze. We see it in the aggregate, and forget that in each homestead there are human creatures, whose joys and sorrows are similar to our own. I can understand now the indifference with which men fling bombs upon a crowded city, as impartial as Fate. Everything, it would seem, is a matter of perspective.