137: The Air War Pt. 2


1916 would see the RFC take on their greatest task yet, the Battle of the Somme



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 137. This week a big thank you goes out to listener Jan for the donation, thank you. This is our second episode on the Air War over the front in 1916 and this week we will be focused solely on the air battle over the Somme. For the British, 1916 would be defined by the Somme, both on the ground and in the air. While the French and Germans would also participate it would just be another large battle just like another one that was occurring at the same time. In this episode we will look at the preparations for the battle as both sides tried to gain control over the soon-to-be battlefield. Then we will look at the events of July 1916 as the British would have the advantage and then follow that story all the way until November when the battle ended with the Germans in firm control of the air. This episode features a larger than usual set of first-hand accounts much like some of our episodes focusing on the Battle of the Somme last year that comes mostly thanks to the huge amount of scholarship devoted to the battle over the years. They are also, sadly, almost entire British focused as there are far more English sources for me to pull from. I would love to learn German eventually, but there are only so many hours in the day.

As with any major battle, the air war over the Somme began with reconnaissance. It would be this reconnaissance, generally involving photographs, that would inform the planning for the attack and then influence its execution. The BEF took over the Somme front in July 1915 but it would not be until March 1916 that they began to put a lot of effort into cataloging the German positions along the front. Here is Lieutenant Robin Rowell of the RFC discussing the plan “As far as possible the whole of the German front line would be photographed for a depth of about a thousand yards every month. The cameras that we used for this work were box cameras with an infinity focus, containing an auxiliary magazine or changing box of twelve plates. As each of these plates was exposed, they were transferred into a second changing box by means of a sliding handle that worked on top of the camera. This handle reset the shutter for another exposure at the same time. The shutter release had a piece of cord attached to it so that the pilot might pull it easily with his thick-gloved hands.” To get the best photos the pilots would fly at just 6,000 feet, quite low by this point in the war. Lieutenant Rowell goes on to describe the danger of flying over the lines at this height “The shells would burst far faster then you could count them, and you were compelled to change your direction every fifteen or twenty seconds or you would not last long. But it’s well worth taking heavy risks to get good photos. If you are being worried by an AA gun while you are ranging your own guns and you happen to know where the culprit is in hiding, you have only to fly straight until you see him fire and then, ten or fifteen seconds later, change your course one way or another and you will find the shells will explode where you would have been had you gone on straight. There are few things that annoy ‘Archie’ more than this trick because he doesn’t get a ghost of a chance of even frightening you. If you are at a height of about 6 or 7,000 ft, it will take the shell about twenty seconds to explode from the time you see the flash of the gun.” While at times the pilots were successful in bringing back critical photos of the German lines, at times things would conspire to prevent them from getting the information they were searching for. Sometimes it was as simple as an equipment malfunction, as described by Second Lieutenant Hutcheon “Today I went up to take photos and went over the lines four times, carefully sighting the required trenches and taking 18 photos. I spent nearly two and a half hours in the air, and when I got back I found the string that worked the shutter had broken after my third photo, and the rest had not come out. It was disappointing, because my last three journeys over the lines need not have been made, and incidentally it would have saved getting a hole through one of my planes.” While the photos were not as detailed they would be with modern equipment there was still a lot of information hidden inside of them. The British intelligence officers became adept at determining non-obvious information from the photos like how deep a trench was by the shadows that it cast, or the state of the railways leading up to the front, or any number of other items. These photos would then be used to decide where to lay artillery bombardments, where best to send units during the attack, and what German opposition could be expected at points along the front.

In early 1916 the Germans’ owned the skies with their Fokker Eindeckers, but that would begin to change before the summer. One critical aircraft that helped turn the tide was the Dehavilland DH2, which we briefly discussed last week. The DH2 was a pusher fighter, with a gun mounted to fire forward. While perhaps not the most beautiful aircraft, and one that was slower than the Fokker and having a slower rate of climb the pilots still really liked it. Most of that affection came from the fact that it would outturn anything else in the skies at this point in the war. It would also perform those turns without losing as much airspeed as other planes, which meant it also did not lose as much altitude and this gave it an advantage if it could get close in with enemy aircraft. Later on the DH2 would be joined by the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter which was a tractor plane with a second seat for an observer who was equipped with a Lewis gun on a ring mount. While the British planes were very comparable, if not superior to the German planes they faced the British pilots were very green and the British science of aerial combat was just beginning to develop, a fact that I think is well illustrated by Captain Williams of the RFC “The idea of devoting some method to practise allowances in shooting was solved by Major Hawker, who designed the first aiming off model, with the marked rod up the centre, which later became universal and was adopted by every training station in the RFC. We had been discussing aiming off and how much to allow at various ranges. Major Hawker, taking a pencil and paper and reckoning the pace of a bullet, showed us in a few minutes:- 1) That most of us were wide of the mark. 2) That range was a very essential factor, which we were largely overlooking . . . He was one of the first to realise that many a pilot can get close to his man, but few can shoot straight enough to shoot him down.” Determining what kinds of sights aerial guns needed, as opposed to more stationary guns on the ground, was a critical step to mastering aerial combat.

May and June would see the air war over the Somme reach new heights. For the British and French they were attempting to keep the Germans away from their preparations while at the same time learning as much as possible about the German defenses. For the Germans, they knew that something was happening and the build-up was unmistakable, but they needed to find out as much information as possible. The British and French pilots were the ones getting the short end of the stick in these situations, with greater demands placed on them to fly deep over German territory, always a dangerous task. Lieutenant Leslie Horridge describes part of the problem “The poor old BE2 C just trickles along with the weight it has to carry. Thirty gallons of petrol, two officers, two Lewis guns with 400 rounds of ammunition, two 20lb bombs, wireless with accumulator and a huge camera fitted on the outside of the machine where it gets all the air resistance. It is just about as much as you can expect the thing to fly with” At this point the BE2 C was a slow aircraft to begin with, even before it was loaded up with everything it needed to fly over the lines. The presence of the 2 20lb bombs is interesting, but Lieutenant Alan Jackson explains why they were given these two bombs “All machines that flew up to the lines and across had to always carry two 20 lb bombs and drop them on any target they thought was worthwhile. The object of this was to make quite sure that the pilots did cross the lines and go over enemy territory. Very often they rather shirked that through nerve tiredness - they preferred not to do it. Across the lines is always more dangerous than doing it on your own side. They had to get across the lines to do it and they would choose some railway station or whatever it might be that they thought it might be useful to bomb. As often as not they never hit them so it didn’t much matter, but still they dropped the bombs and they got across the line which was the object of the exercise.” Many pilots would lose their lives in these early days of the battle, however it was always seen as worth it. The lives of a few pilots and observers could be spent to gain information that could save huge numbers of infantry.

In the last few weeks before the attacck the British would have 185 aircraft and 76 fighters over the front, the French would bring even more. The Germans would meet these with just 129 aircraft, with only 20 being fighters. They were heavily outnumbered, but they were lucky to have the weather on their side. Just a week before the start of the offensive the British and French would launch a simultaneous aerial offensive, their primary targets were the German observation balloons all along the front. There were even special aircraft sent out that were armed with phosporous bombs to increase the likelihood of destroying the balloons. There was just one problem, on the day of the attack the weather was horrible, with impenetrable low clouds that clocked the balloons, resulting in none of them being lost. This poor weather would continue all the way up to the attack, preventing the last minute preparations from the RFC. However, they had done about as much as they could already, having taken photographs of almost the entire series of German trenches and positions. They now transitioned into the role of assisting the infantry in their attack.

During the attack the planes had a very important role to play, they were to fly over the front at just a few thousand feet to track the progress of the infantry. In his book Somme Success Peter Hart would say that “the contact patrols witnessed tragedy unparalleled in British military history before or since. It was their role to determine the exact progress of troops on the ground. This information was vital to inform the supporting artillery batteries, as it had been found through bitter experience that conventional means of communication frequently broke down when the troops launched themselves across No Man’s Land.” Second Lieutenant Cecil Lewis would describe how he was supposed to go about tracking the battle “We had all our contact patrol technique perfected and we went right down to 3,000 feet to see what was happening. We had a klaxon horn on the undercarriage of the Morane – a great big 12 volt klaxon and I had a button which I used to press out a letter to tell the infantry that we wanted to know where they were. When they heard us hawking at them from above, they had little red Bengal flares, they carried them in their pockets, they would put a match to their flares. All along the line wherever there was a chap there would be a flare and we would note these flares down on the map and Bob’s your uncle! It was one thing to practise this but quite another thing for them to really do it when they were under fire and particularly when things began to go a bit badly. Then they jolly well wouldn’t light anything and small blame to them because it drew the fire of the enemy on to them at once. So we went down looking for flares and we only got about two flares on the whole front. We were bitterly disappointed because this we hoped was our part to help the infantry and we weren’t able to do it.” Flares were not the only way in which the pilots could follow the infantry. Many units were equipped with white strips of cloth that they were supposed to lay on the ground, others had metal mirrors on their packs which, it was hoped, would reflect the light for the pilots to see. It is pretty hard to know if such schemes would have been successful if the attack had really started rolling since much of the attack resulted in very little progress. There were also other tasks for the RFC. One task was performed by the bombers flying behind the German lines. There they attempted to drop bombs on the major German rail and road junctions to interrupt the flow of reinforcements to the front. Some of these missions were successful, with several trains being destroyed on their way to the front, many of them would miss the mark entirely. What is interesting about these attacks is not the results but instead the creation of close air support which would become such a vital part of planning in the future. These early close support missions, both behind and over the front, assisted in much more than just their physical bombing or strafing, they also had a very real mental impact on the Germans. Here is a German officer to describe why this was the case. “The infantry had no training in defence against very low-flying aircraft. Moreover, they had no confidence in their ability to shoot these machines down if they were determined to press home their attacks. As a result, they were seized with a fear amounting almost to panic; a fear that was fostered by the incessant activity and hostility of enemy aeroplanes”

As the fighting on the ground continued, the air war continued to grind on. Photos and observation patrols had to be done continuously as the battlefield changed on a day to day basis. Lieutenant Leslie Horridge would be on the pilots going out day after day to do this work “The aeroplane signals to the battery by wireless and the battery signals to the aeroplane by strips of white cloth on the ground. It is a common fallacy to think that you can see everything from an aeroplane. It is often very hard to make out details. When ranging with shrapnel it is quite easy to see the burst, but with high explosive it is quite difficult. Unless you are watching the place where the shell bursts at the right moment you will miss it as the smoke is brown and cannot be seen against the ground and all you can see is the earth thrown up which of course falls back in a second. You are usually at a height of about 8,000 feet although some days you have to come much lower. All the time you have to be on the lookout for Huns.” There were several schemes in place that were used to tell the pilots in the air where the lines were at any given moment. At about 700 feet the pilots could determine the color of uniforms, but they did not want to fly that low due to the risk of ground fire and the risk of falling prey to German planes dropping in on them from above. There were also the signaling panels, mirrors, and flares that were used during the initial attack. Here is Major General Trenchard discussing the usage of flares at the front “Flares can be easily seen and distinguished from the air and proved their value on may occasions for defining the positions reached by the infantry. From the observer’s point of view they were not lit in sufficient numbers. This was no doubt partly due to a shortage in the supply, only a proportion of the men carrying them in consequence. Some of our men seem to think that the flares draw shell fire. If judiciously placed, however, they can easily be screened from the enemy’s view altogether. The Germans use Verey Lights and rockets freely, although they are more likely to draw fire than are our flares.” While the RFC had all of these duties to support the infantry there were also plenty of things to do to counter the air forces. To do this, in a time before radar, required a group of men at the front watching and waiting for German planes to make themselves known over the front. Once they were spotted messages were sent to nearby airfields where pilots were waiting. Here is Lieutenant A. M. Wilkinson discussing what would happen on these airfields “A system of alarms was arranged. A bell ringing both at the Squadron office and the mess – and how vividly we all remember those bells – which generally seemed to ring about two minutes before one’s relief came, for we stood by ready to leave the ground immediately the alarm rang. With the Mono engine, no time was wasted in starting or warming up and quite frequently, machines were in the air well within one minute of the alarm bell ringing. I well remember the general alarm sounding on one occasion, on a rather dud day, when most people were in the mess. (A general alarm sounded if more than 10 machines were reported.) On this occasion in one minute, machines were streaming out of the hangar and twelve machines were off the ground in under two minutes. We never found anything at all and we all supposed afterwards that ‘Archie’ had been seeing things. It was probably six machines which passed four times over a gap in the clouds. To save time a large board was placed outside the Squadron office with the area and number of Hostile Aircraft on it, and as one took off, one glanced at the board to see what one’s task was. This was, like most of our other gadgets, Major Hawker’s idea . . . Three and sometimes even four shows a day (I have done the latter myself in extreme cases when an attack was on) and throughout it all a great spirit of responsibility and unselfishness ran right through the Squadron. The work done by some of the mechanics was at times tremendous – again and again work having to be continued all night to enable us to keep machines serviceable. Speaking of my own flight – which was representative – the men at that time were really wonderful. No holidays, no leave and all work, but never a grumble. I had on more than one occasion to order men to bed in the daytime, or otherwise I knew they would collapse and break down.”

August would see the British change some of their tactics in the air, all driven by the responses the Germans had to the initial fighting. It was during this month that more German fighters arrived at the front, this included a large stock of newer planes, these new arrivals made the skies very dangerous for the British pilots and to try and deal with this the British switched many of their bombing missions over to night time raids. This made the flying itself more dangerous, but the skies were free of a German response. These kinds of pushes and pulls, moves and countermoves, would be a critical piece of the air war for the entire duration as each side sought to answer the other. One big answer from the Germans started to happen in September with the arrival of a new plane, the Albatross D1, with the arrival of this new air frame the pendulum swung once again in the favor of the Germans. It was armed with twin machine guns firing through the propeller which was driven by a 160hp engine. It was superior to everything that the British had, and outclassed the FE2 Bs which so many British pilots were still flying by so much that the German pilots could make several mistakes and still win the exchange. There were some Entente planes that had a change against the Albatross, especially the Nieuport 17, but that plane was a French model and it was being hoarded by the French. Any planes that got outside of their control often found their way to the Royal Naval Air Service. The Nieuport could not match the Albatros in flat out speed, but it could outturn the German plane. This meant that it could serious challenge the Albatross if flown by an experienced pilot. Overall the losses were incredibly lopsided in September, with the Germans shooting down 123 Entente planes in exchange for just 27 of their own. Instead of pulling back from the front Trenchard redoubled the RFC’s efforts to push out over the lines, even in the face of the losses being sustained. Along with air combat and reconnaissance flights there was another, and I think more interesting, use for a few of the British planes during September. It was during this month that the first tanks made their debut, but the British faced the problem of getting them up to the front without the Germans knowing, and the armored beasts were not exactly quiet. A rather ingenious scheme was used to make this happen, as Lieutenant Rowell explains “Why are all the FE2 Bs learning to night-fly so suddenly? Nobody knows. But within a week or so all the FE2 B squadrons were night flying, and then they started to drop an occasional 20-lb bomb on some wretched village just over the lines. Why are the FEs flying tonight? They don’t even know themselves, except that they were told to go and fly up and down the lines from Arras to Albert; and when one machine came back another went out to drop a bomb that could do no-one any harm. It’s an interesting fact that the 120 hp Beardmore engines fitted into the early FE2 Bs made almost exactly the same noise as the Daimler engines fitted into the first tanks. And it was in this way that the tanks were brought right up to the trenches, when the Boche knew nothing about them. The reason that the FEs always took a small bomb with them to drop on the Hun was merely to avoid suspicion.” While the tank attack would not be successful, you can’t blame the RFC for not doing their part.

During October the Germans would take a page out of the British playbook and begin night bombing behind the front for the first time. This would catch the British by surprise, and cause some initial problems. Flying at night was a real challenge during the First World War, with very little instrumentation to assist in navigation, but the most challenging and dangerous part was always landing. To assist the British pilots returning from their bombing missions the British would line the runways with petrol flares, however, with the Germans now out looking for bombing targets this tactic had to be changed so as not to give away the location of air bases to the wrong planes. Major George Carmichael explains how the RFC made some changes to deal with this new challenge “During night flying operations we were particularly vulnerable as our position was disclosed by having to use petrol flares for getting off and landing and we had to take special precautions. The flare party of five men, each with his tin of petrol, old rag and a sousing blanket, stood by to light up when ordered by Sergeant Major Patterson who knew that the aircraft were ready to take off and to extinguish immediately the aircraft had gone. On return each aircraft had to fire the Verey pistol signal for the night, then Patterson would shout the order to light up. When the machine had perched, the flares would again be immediately extinguished. It was not long before the Germans grasped our plan, looked out for our recognition signal for the night and copied it. As soon as we lit up, down came a shower of bombs. Only one night, however, did bombs actually straddle our positions, and then fortunately, without causing any casualties or damage to aircraft. To counter this we created a dummy aerodrome with canvas sheeting to simulate sheds during daytime and lit flares there at night. On one occasion this drew a low attack of machine gun fire sweeping up and down the dummy, empty aerodrome.” October would also bring weather issues back to the forefront of the air war. Lieutenant Leslie Horridge explains how this affected the pilots “often it was just too wet and windy to fly at all. We have had quite a lot of nice wet days lately, although it has usually cleared up a bit in the afternoon. It has been very windy too. I found I could make the machine go backwards if I wanted to. On one shoot I was doing it took me more than half an hour to get from the target to the ground station near the battery. It would have taken three minutes as a rule.” While the weather was certainly not ideal, many of the pilots welcomed the rains as it game them some time for rest and relaxation, something they had not had much of since July.

November would see the same situation continue over the front. The Germans with their more technically capable, but outnumbered, aircraft flown by pilots like Richtofen and others who had honed their skills under the now deceased Boelcke. It was clear that the British aircraft that had brought the RFC this far in the war were not up to the new task, the DH2 and FEB 2C were just easy targets now. Unfortunately for the pilots there would not be a new British fighter at the front until May 1917. Over the Somme front, with the weather continuing to deteriorate the pace of air operations slowed as the battle on the ground also sputtered to a close. Overall the RFC would have 583 casualties during the Somme actions, tiny in comparison to those on the ground, but when weighted against their small initial number a brutal percentage. The fighting over the Somme had been the first air campaign where the RFC had faced an armed and determined enemy that was just as capable as the British and they had done well, even if it had cost them dearly, and their contributions on the ground had been critical to whatever successful the British army had on the ground.

Hello everyone, on October 27th and 28th I will be doing a video game streaming marathon for charity called Extra-Life. The goal of the marathon is to raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network, a charity that helps children in need. As part of that marathon on October 27th from 6PM until Midnight Central Daylight Time I will be playing Battlefield 1, a first person video game set during 1918. I will also be answering questions about the first world war, historical accuracy in video games, and anything else you might want to know. The stream will be happening at twitch.tv/historyofthegreatwar that is twitch.tv/historyofthegreatwar. So even if you have no interest in the video game, come hang out and maybe check out the awesome charity. Okay, that is all for now, let’s get on with the episode.