36: Innovation in the Air


World War 1 would be the first war in which air combat played a significant role, the roots for that combat lay in the technological and strategic choices of 1915.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 36. This will be the first episode where we discuss aircraft and air power during the great war. We have mentioned it in passing several times up to this point, mostly around reconnaissance efforts by the various air arms of the armies. I’m going to preface this episode with a warning, there are going to be a ton of facts, figures, and other data points mentioned during this episode. These are mostly to show how much things were changing in the air during the first 12 months of the war, but you may get a bit dizzy from all the numbers flying around, don’t worry, there won’t be a test. In 1915 there was a clear delineation between the major air powers of Britain, Germany, and France and the lesser powers of Russia, Italy, and Austria-Hungary. This delineation was created from the differences both technology and industrially between the two groups. Air power, in general would end up playing a far larger role on the Western Front, while their were still plans in the east throughout the entire war, they would find themselves in the reconnaissance role far more often than the fighting role. In 1915 was the beginning of the use of airplanes for both aerial combat and for bombing raids and all of the countries were grappling with what their strategies were going to be moving forward. While trying to figure out what they wanted to build, they were all also trying to figure out how to build it. Trying to mobilize each countries industrial capacity to manufacture the planes the army was wanting would be major theme that we will cover for each of the countries today. One of the big themes through the early air war was the number of planes delivered, just like any other weapon. The one thing I never really thought of, and probably should have, was that the biggest bottleneck was engines. We live in a world where there are so many factories that produce engines, motor vehicles are ubiquitous in all countries. This was very much not the case in 1914, the automobile was new and with planes being made of wood and cloth early in the war it makes sense that the most complex, and difficult to manufacture, piece was the engine. So when I talk about how many engines each country could produce I’m not just throwing that number out to be random, it is actually a pretty good indicator of how many planes a country could field, and how advanced its industrial capacity was.

The first country we will discuss today will be Russia. Now Russia isn’t necessarily known as a big player in the air war. In fact I don’t think I am saying anything too crazy when I say that not much is known at all about the air battles on the eastern front in western countries. However there were airplanes over the eastern front just like in the west and in early 1915 Russia took the step of trying to combine the organization of all aviation activities under Grand Duke Aleksandr. This seems somewhat obvious, but it wasn’t an arrangement that the countries had right at the beginning of the war. Aleksandr had both an Army air force and one attached to the navy to organize. This arrangement also wasn’t atypical, and it remains the arrangement of many countries around the world. The navy had air fleets to operate in both the Baltic and the Black seas. 1915 was a big year for Russian aviation with the number of planes going from 350 to 553 over the course of the year and monthly production rising from just 37 in 1914 to over 200 planes per month by the end of 1915. Even with this rise in production they couldn’t keep up with the output of German factories so they were forced to import planes and parts from France which put them in direct competition with the requirements of the French military. This resulted in older, often obsolete models, being sent eastward by the French instead of newer more useful planes. One of the shining spots in aviation for Russia was the creation of the Sikorski Grand Airplane which was a very large bomber that could carry up to a half of a ton of bombs, which was a spectacular amount for 1915. It was also just a large plane in general with 3 crew members, 2 machine guns, and a flight time of over 5 hours. These planes would end up being essential to the reconnaissance efforts of the Russians, the flight time made it infinitely more useful on the long Eastern front. The survivability was also impressive, especially when you take into account the relatively light armaments of most planes early in the war, before larger machine guns started being mounted on the fighters. These aircraft would first start arriving in August and by the end of the year the Russians started to really realize their value and they would almost instantly order 75 more. One final note, much like in other eastern countries training was a serious problem for the Russians, it didn’t help the Russian attempts to get enough planes to the front and in the air when it is estimated in The Great War in the Air by John H. Morrow that fewer than 20 percent of Russian pilots were actually effective at flying their aircraft.

One of Russia’s primary opponents both on the ground and in the air during the war was Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary, just like on the ground had 3 problems to deal with in the air with Russia, Serbia, and Italy. Now the Serbian air force was pretty much non-existent, but the other two were a problem. One of the interesting uses of the Austro-hungarians air force early in the war was the carrying of messages to the besieged troops at Przemysl which was really the only way to get information to the beleaguered troops inside the fortress. The Austrians also managed to rule the Adriatic sea early in the war with a plane called the Lohner L-Boat which was a monstrous plane with a flight time even greater than the Russian Sikorski at 7 hours. Now it couldn’t carry as many bombs, with only about a third of the capacity but it could bomb Italian cities after its entry into the war. While this plane was impressive, much like Russia Austria-Hungary was heavily dependent on its allies, in this case the Germans, for their manufacturing capabilities. By the end of 1915 the Empire found themselves almost completely dependent on the Hansa-Brandenburg factory near Berlin for all of their modern engines. Just that one German factory was, by the end of the year, producing more engines than all of the factories in the entire Austro-Hungarian empire. Knowing their positions, the Germans obviously charged a high price for their services. This dependence didn’t end in 1915, even with increased local production in 1916, of all of the planes that the empire would receive during that year 186 of them were from Germany while just 281 of them were produced within the country.

Just a brief word on Italy now, they entered the war with only 150 obsolte French aircraft. When it became clear that they would probably end up in the war they ordered 100 more near the end of 1914 after creating the Military Aeronautical Corps. In a fun fact the number of planes ordered, at 100, actually outnumbered the number of toal people employed in the Italian aircraft industry. The Italians did manage to build one plane built specifically to be a bomber that would be called the Caproni Cal which was powered by 3 Fiat engines. Fiat would be the primary producer of engines for Italy during the war and for the Caproni they furnished 3 engines per plane which was enough to get the bomber to Austria-Hungary and back by the end of 1915. So of the three countries in the east a massive amount of time and material was poured into these massive long range bombers with the ability to fly for several hours. This tendency for larger aircraft is almost certainly due to the fact that there were far fewer aircraft per mile of front in the east than in the west, making it much more difficult for craft focused on aerial combat to find targets.

Of the three countries in the west Britain started the war with the smallest air presence with just 153 planes. Now the number of planes was a problem for the British but another problem was the fact that they had a hard time getting enough pilots. At the start of the war they refused to let enlisted men or NCOs become pilots and insisted that officers were the only men who could fly. This put an obvious cap on the number of pilots that could be trained at any one time. The British started the war, like everyone else, with reconnaissance as their primary goal and before Neuve-Chapelle, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, they tried to get the entirety of the British front in the area photographed and mapped to help support the attack. This was quite the undertaking with obvious benefits. The British also tried to use planes to show the infantry progress to artillery and commanders by dropping white pieces of cloth to mark how far infantry had gotten in an attack. Now this is a solid plan, but it never really worked out, and the problems with it would never be solved before it was replaced with wireless communication. One of the innovations attributed to the British was the use of the clock code to guide artillery onto target, this was introduced in the fall of 1915 and it was a great system that was also very simple. Basically each plane was equipped with a bit of see through material with 12 lines drawn on it each radiating out from the center and 8 concentric circles all around th point in the middle. The point in the middle would then be placed on the point on the map where the artillery was trying to hit. With this system the spotters in the planes could easily, and most importantly completely unambiguously, give directions to the guns on the ground. They would say that the artillery was hitting 2 circles out on the 2 o’clock line like on a clock. Back by the guns they would have the exact same setup on their plotting tables. This was a great system that didn’t rely on complicated coordinates or map reading skills. It wouldn’t really come into its own until wireless got into the planes, but in the beginning they would fly over the artillery and drop canisters with the information in it, so slower but still effective. While the British had a few technical innovations they fell woefully behind in the air technology race as soon as new German plane designs, specifically the Fokker, began to appear over the front. At some points in later 1915 they basically completely lost all control of the air over the front. They did start mounting Lewis Guns to the tops of the wings of the planes above the pilot seats, giving them some aerial combat capacity, but they were heavily outclassed by the Germans. While the Royal Flying Corps was trying to keep some sort of presence over the front the Royal Navy Air Service was trying to do a bit of bombing and patrolling of the seas while frantically trying to find a way to deal with the German Zeppelin raids over England. I will hold most of the Zeppelin talk for later, but I will say they were a serious problem for the British. The separation of the air services, without a unifying commander, began to cause problems as 1915 drug on, they were constantly fighting each other for material and manufacturing. Now this wasn’t just domestic manufacturing either. The British were also using French manufacturing to help offset some of their domestic shortfalls. They had quickly maxed out the capacity of manufacturing in Britain and had to farm out to the French who, of course, charged high prices. The two groups also didn’t communicate technological and tactical advancements, probably contributing to the Germans having such a massive advantage.

So lets talk about those German Zeppelins. Zeppelins would see sort of their one and only moment in the military spotline in the early days of World War 1. They gave the Germans a decided advantage early in the war before they were able to bomb Britain at such a high altitude that no British planes could touch them. They also had the advantage of being far less weather dependent than airplanes at this point in time, remember that most planes of the early years were made out of wood and cloth. The first air raid over England was launched on January 19th 1915 by just two Zeppelins named, unimaginatively, L3 and L4. This would be the first of several bombing raids over the next few months that would see the Zeppelins target both Paris and London. On May 31 the first raid against London specifically was launched with a new type of Zeppelin with a volume of 1 million cubic feet and the ability to carry 2 tons of bombs. Now I don’t know about you but when I hear words like “1 million cubic feet” my mind has absolutely no mental image as to how big that is so I encourage everybody to go check out the website where I have put some size comparisons, needless to say they were very large. Anyway frequent raids over parts of England continued over the summer months of 1915. There was around 1 raid per month against London. The last raid was on October 13th which killed 71 and injured 128. Now I would just like to take a minute to dwell on these air raids, and others early in the war, this would be the first time that citizens in cities like London would have to look to the skies and worry about what they might find there. Bombs might be falling on them at any moment. Especially in cities like London that hadn’t been seriously threatened by enemy action in centuries, it must have been a rude awakening. Unfortunately for cities all over Europe it was merely a small preview of what would happen in the next war.

Now while the Germans had a great advantage with their Zeppelins, over the front in early 1915 they were struggling. The planes they had at the front were unarmed and were no match for the planes that the French and British were fielding at this point. To try and fix these problems the Germans took the step, like some of the other countries of unifying all of their aviation related activities in mid April 1915 and it is after this move that things started to turn around for them. The first of the new planes to arrive was called, again very imaginatively, the C-Plane which boasted a 150 horsepower engine and a machine gun mounted on the second seat behind the pilot. Over the course of the coming year, while the Germans would create flashier and faster planes it would be the C-Plane that would remain the real workhorse. The German planes were greatly outnumbered as they arrived at the front so for awhile they would be used strictly to defend against allied air raids. In the middle of the summer the next generation of German planes, the E-Plane would begin to arrive, and on it would be one of the most impactful technical innovations of the war, the interrupter gear. Lets talk about the interrupter gear for a bit. Now in early aerial combat the pilots and observers were mostly just using infantry rifles to take pot shots at each other and then they took the next step of mounting machine guns on the wings or on the observer seat. As aerial combat become more common a Frenchman named Roland Garros began investigating the synchronous interrupter gear. This gear was a system that would synchronize the engine and a machine gun mounted to fire through the propellers. With this gear, and some precise engineering,Garros was able to get the bullets of the gun to fire through the spinning propeller, at least most of the time, like 90% or so. Now obviously 90% of most things is enough, but when you are talking about shooting bullets through a propeller it wasn’t. Through the winter months of 1914-1915 Garros was taken off of all ordinary duties to focus strictly on his new invention and by the spring Garros was able to take a prototype plane into combat and quickly shoot down three German planes…but then he was shot down himself. And this is how the Germans ended up getting their hands on Garros’ invention. This was combined with German work that was being done by Anthony Fokker and synchronous gears would be in German Fokker airplanes before the end of the year. While the design was pretty much good to go in mid 1915 there were still a few problems that were being worked out when the E-planes were sent to the front. And just to be clear in this case when I say problems I mean planes literally shooting their own propellers off, so big problems. This combined with some control problems forced the Germans to remove the E-planes from service temporarily while they were worked out. In its short time at the front the E-plane ruled the skies with a massive advantage over any French or British aircraft. Now Fokker wasn’t thrilled that his plane was pulled out of the line, having the top aircraft was great for his company’s prestige and pocketbook. So in October Fokker was able to use political connections to get the plane back into service. Now this is sort of when you first start seeing the first aerial superstars of the war in Germany with Max Immelmann chief among them, he would be called the Eagle of Lille. In November 1915 Immelmann had a special E-plane created just for him by Fokker for his use at the front. At the end of 1915 with the E-Plane and upgraded C-Planes also equipped with the interrupter gear the Germans began to go on the offensive and really start ruling the skies over the front in France and Belgium. Even though the Germans found themselves in a ruling position at the end of 1915 they were having the same supply problems as everybody else. They were having trouble getting the manufacturers and the military to work together efficiently. Early in the war, much like in France and Britain, factories typically bid on contracts that they had no hope of actually delivering on time. This problem was just worsened by the fact that German factories often ignored orders from the German military to take on the much more lucrative orders from Austria-Hungary. Now this wouldn’t be a permanent problem, and the Germans would mostly fix it in 1916. The Germans also didn’t rest on their laurels when it came to technology and before the end of 1915 Hugo Junkers was already beginning work on an all metal airplane with its obvious advantage over planes made from just wood and canvas. The story of the creation of that plane will be a story for next year.

So let us turn to our last country that we will discuss today, the French. The first few months of 1915 heralded big changes for the French air service they had opened 4 new flight schools by March and through the year they would introduce 5 new types of aircraft the Voisin, Caudron, and Farman which were bombers and the Nieuport and Morane which were fighters. To create these new aircraft the French nearly doubled their production capacity between January and March but by mid 1915 the level of production had began to slow due to a crippling lack of engines. This engine production problem was made worse by constant small changes to the specifications from feedback from the front. Now this type of tweeking based on experience is great, except for the fact that it prevented the French from settling their production lines down to a single type of engine and airframe. This was also an area that was hurt by the fact that large swaths of France were under German control, including so much of the manufacturing and heavy industry of pre-war France. There was one final problem, France’s allies, France had agreed to supply England and Russia with a portion of their engine production capacity since the French, while limited, could still produce more than Russia and Britain combined. All of these problems required two large changes to be made to French manufacturing plans. The first was the inclusion of the automobile manufacturers into the production process. Oh I guess I didn’t mention this earlier, but at the beginning o the war French aircraft production was controlled by the Director of Military Aeronautics who was pretty insistent that production remain limited strictly to specialty aircraft manufacturers. So while the French air force had a crippling engine shortage there was still plenty of engine production capacity making engines for civilian uses. This was not a strictly French problem and was eventually solved in all of the countries, but is one of those things that makes me shake my head at how unprepared the countries of Europe were for the scale of the war. In early June the War Ministry also took a big step and allowed several different arms manufacturing industries to reclaim some of their skill labor from the front. So many skilled workers had been drafted into the army back in August 1914 that the factories were having trouble reaching their maximum production capacity, let alone trying to expand that capacity. This robbing of skilled workers from the front did nothing to help the animosity between the front line commanders all the way up to chain to Joffre and the factory production managers. The soldiers thought the factory workers were lazy and the factory workers thought the soldiers were wasteful. Now both sides had good reasons to believe this. At the front the soldiers saw manufacturers that couldn’t create enough engines, some of which weren’t even of very high quality. The manufacturers were getting contracts for obsolete types of engines that were sometimes not even used, or would just sit on airfields due to the risk from German planes.

Much like everybody else the French Air Force started off the war as artillery observation with the Farmans and Cuadrons being the primary airframes used. Now these planes weren’t actually greatly threatened until the German C-Planes started to appear over the front in 1915. The French artillery officers often didn’t believe these early aerial spotting reports. This seems odd, and resulted in several errors like the shelling of French troops during the Artois battles. These types of trust issues would be ironed out overtime, but not soon enough for some of the French soldiers. One of the areas that the French put a lot of focus on in early 1915 was aerial bombardment and in January 1915 the War Ministry offered a prize for the best bomber design. The technical experts within France weren’t united on what would make a great bomber and what the best course for development was but everyone agreed that they needed to be large which resulted in running into engine problems. As engine horse power got greater the engines got to be unsustainably heavy, especially when the French got into the 200 horsepower range. The early engines were all inline with each cylinder positioned behind the one in front of it and the French began to research more into radial and v engine technology to try and make them lighter. The French wouldn’t really have a top class engine until the introduction of the Hispano-Suiza 150hp V8 engine and it would end up being one of the best engines of the entire war. It was in a V configuration with an aluminum block to save weight. This would be used in future bombers with great success. In the meantime the French were forced to use the Voisin airframe as bombers, in the early days the bombs were just artillery shells that would be dropped over the edge of the plane by the co-pilors or spotters. Obviously there is a pretty hard limit how much these men could hoist over the edge of the plane so there was soon an improvement to attach 155mm artillery shells under the wings in racks and then give the observer a way to trigger the release of the shells from within the cockpit. As for bombing strategy, for the most part the French high command favored strategic and industrial targets and the first large raid was on the Badische Anilin Company of Ludwigshaven which produced explosives and poison gas. On May 27th 1915 the bombers took off at 3AM for the 6 hour bombing raid. The raid would end up being successful and would set the stage for larger raids with 23 planes attacking Karlsruhe in June and 62 attacking Dillingen in August. By the end of August the French would have 100 dedicated bombers at the front. When the Germans started getting fighters to the front in large numbers the French began flying in formation to maximize defensive power and they also began to use night raids as a safer way into German territory. The French commanders had dreams of 500 plane bombing raids into Germany, but they were still lacking a truly great next generation bomber that would make it possible. Another design competition was completed in November but the resulting bomber, the Bregut-Michelin, while meeting the technical requirements, was widely disliked by the pilots.

In September 1915, to try and fix some of their production problems an aviatian subcommittee of the French Parliament wrote a report in which it claimed that that aerial situation was grave and all of the blame should be placed on the army command. The report pointed to the lack of coordination between the army and the manufacturers. After these scathing remarks the army put in some research and rewrote its entire operational plan. No more obsolete aircraft would be ordered, there would be less bombers and more fighters to combat the German planes. They ordered 800 all-purpose aircraft powered by the Hispano-Suizas. This went in the face of years of French aerial theory. There was less focus on bombing and, maybe more importantly, less emphasis on specialization with the 800 Hispano-Suizas powered planes proved that. There was also a new Director of Military Aeronautics appointed, and he was a civilian who believed it was the manufacturers job to supply whatever the front needed and not to question it. He reorganized the Aviation production service and proposed the creation of an inspectorate of material to verify that what was getting to the front was of the highest quality. Manufacturers were not a fan of this idea, although of course the army would have loved it, and he would be under constant criticism during the war and after for his policies. He was so controversial that by early February 1916 he was forced to resign. This would begin a revolving door of Directors of Military aeronautics that would hamper French production well into 1916.

That is where we will leave air power for now, however I think that gives us a good bit of foundation and you can expect to hear more about air operations as we move into battles later in 1915 and beyond. The air war will play a larger and larger role as the war moved forward and the technology will grow by leaps and bounds over the coming years of the war. We will probably check in on a yearly basis to focus on technological and production advances since they would probably distract too much in a normal episode and in 1916 we will meet even more of some of the most famous air aces of the war. Next week we take our podcast back to the ground as we discuss France’s large summer offensive on the familiar battleground of Artois.