138: The Air War Pt. 3


1917 would be a high point for the air war.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 138. This episode is our third and last detailing the air war of 1916 and 1917 with our focus today being on the events of 1917. This penultimate year of the war would be in some ways the height of the air war. It had taken all of the belligerents several years to hit their stride, but now with many of the manufacturing issues taken care of, new and faster machines arriving at the front, and 3 years of tactical refinement the war in the air would be more important and more action packed than ever before. Richard Bicker would give a rundown of some of the most important airplanes of the year in his book the First Great Air War “1917 was a vintage year for aeroplanes as well as for pilots. The Germans introduced the Albatros DV and the Fokker Triplane. The former was a V-strutter and prone to flutter and collapse of the lower wing in a dive, but fast and handy. The three German ground-attack fighters pioneered this specialist type. Among the French the Spad XIII was even better than the VII, and, when fitted with a Rolls-Royce engine capable of 133 m.p.h. and a climb to 10,000 feet in 8 minutes. The Nieuport 28 was almost as fast. The Breguet 14B2 was an excellent reconnaissance and bomber aeroplane, strong and reliable. The ground-attack variant had two Lewis guns, front and rear, inclined downward, and the crew were protected by armour plate. The Voisin VIII night bomber had a quick-firing 37-mm Hotchkiss cannon, a formidable piece of ordnance.” The Germans would take the defensive for most of the year due to the fact that they were outnumbered by the Entente, this numerical advantage was reduced by the fact that the British and French rarely properly coordinated their actions, and since planes could easily be moved around the front the Germans were able to meet each of the Entente air offensives in turn. Today we will be covering the German, French, and British situations in the air in some detail before spending the last part of the episode discussing 4 other topics: the Lafayette Escadrille, Bombing, the mental strain of air operations, and parachutes or perhaps more appropriately why the British hated parachutes so much.

The Germans would carry their technological advantages of late 1916 into 1917 and just before the Spring offensives they would get even more pronounced. This advantage would grow as a new Albatros, the D3, would begin arriving in large numbers and even though heavily outnumbered by Entente planes it would have a victory rate of over 2 to 1. The new Albatros would be slowly outclassed during the summer as the British and French planes arrived, but that would not be until after May and June. The Germans would then regain the advantage in the autumn with the arrival of the Fokker Triplane although it would once again be heavily outnumbered. Speaking of triplanes, one of the most famous triplanes of the war was the Fokker Dr. 1 Triplane, flown by the infamous Red Baron. The idea of triplanes started off with bombers where the extra wing allowed for more weight to be carried because it provided additional lift. Sopwith was the first company to try putting three wings on a fighter, and they found that it offered one big advantage. With three wings each of them could be shorter which meant that the resulting airframe was highly maneuverable. This capability was used to great effect by the most famous triplane pilot, Manfred von Richtofen who flew with his famous flying circus. There were some problems with triplanes that could not be solved, namely the fact that the extra wings meant more weight and more drag, reducing overall airspeed. They would also be quite sluggish at altitude which became a greater and greater problem as the altitude of air combat continued to increase during the war. These two large downsides is why triplanes were a short fad that would not be replicated in later aircraft where speed was of prime importance. While the fighter could often hold their own it was the pilots of the bombers and reconnaissance pilots that were hit hardest when the German fighters fell even slightly behind the technology curve. To try and compensate for their deficiencies the German reconnaissance flights changed tactics and began the practice of climbing to their maximum altitude behind the German lines, somewhere around 15 and 20 thousand feet. Once they had gotten to this altitude they would do their entire reconnaissance run over the front while slightly descending. This allowed them to maintain maximum possible air speed for the entire trip both reducing their time over the front and making it more difficult for Entente planes to intercept and engage them.

1917 would also see the Germans bring the most successful and maybe the only truly successful depending on the sources that you read, armored ground attack aircraft to the front. This was the Junker J.I and it was designed from the ground up as a close air support aircraft. Reading about it reminds me of the modern day A-10 because the Junkers had a one-piece armored steel bathtub that protected the engine, fuel tanks, and the cockpit. This made it almost impervious to small arms fire. The pilots would then fly at 100 meters above the ground and fire at infantry with machine guns, drop bombs, and even drop the occasional grenade on the men below. John H. Morrow from The Great War in the Air would say of these low level attacks that “This was the air war at its grittiest, as these anonymous fliers from the ranks flew into massed machine gun and rifle fire from the ground to help their anonymous kin, the frontline infantry” While the work was dangerous from the air, it also had an effect on the infantry beyond any physical damage that it caused. The infantry often felt completely powerless to stop attacks from the air, and would write about this feeling of helplessness, dedicated attack aircraft like the Junkers just exacerbated this feeling.

On the production side the Germans would be producing almost one thousand planes a month, although the rate of production would slow by the end of the year as raw materials became harder and harder to come by. There was also an interesting interaction between the high command, the manufacturers, and the most famous pilots at the front. The group in charge of procurement in the German government and military wanted to stick with the Albatros and its upgrades as long as possible in 1917, and even into 1918. The hope was that by sticking with this airframe they would be able to produce as many aircraft as possible, even if they were not the best available. This desire ran into the requests of the pilots at the front who wanted the best possible aircraft available to them, with aces like Richtofen heavily involved with specific designers who promised them better planes. This resulted in Richtofen and others strongly advocating for more advanced Fokker designs. These might be better on a plane to plane basis but they could not be produced in nearly the numbers as the Albatros. The disagreement between the two groups would continue for the rest of the war but did not prevent the Germans from producing 12,000 engines and 14,000 airframes over the course of the year. This was a good number, but far outpaced by their enemies.

The French were in a rough spot in 1917. They had some bright spots, like the Spad S7 which was just as good as any German plane that would be in the air. There would have been more Spads, and better fighters in general, if the French could have mastered their new 200 horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine. It was hoped that this new engine would replace the 150hp version that was in use before 1917 but there were serious manufacturing and reliability issues with it early and mid-1917 that the French would work hard to resolve, but still have issues with. While the French fighters were at least mostly up to snuff, the same could not be said of their reconnaissance planes. In this area they were still using the ancient Voisin and Farman pusher aircraft in their observation and bomber units. By this point in the year these old airframes were basically just cannon fodder for the Germans. There was also a problem in getting of the available aircraft to the front due to administrative challenges. This resulted in just 55 percent of the French planes being at the front, and many of those being the Voisin and Farmans. The French airplanes were often so old and poorly made that in April and May 1917 there were more casualties from accidents than from enemy action. When it came to supporting their most important attack of the year, at the Chemin des Dames, the French were able to must just 150 aircraft for support.

On September 11th, 1917 the most famous French ace of the war, Georges Guynemer, was lost. Guynemer had been flying for most of the war, and during that time he had taken on an extremely fatalist viewpoint. He fully believed that he would be killed before the end of the war, and because of this he took risks that he was lucky to survive, until he didn’t. In September 1917 he was flying with tuberculosis and his nerves were completely shattered. The breakdown of nerves from the constant strain of combat operations is something that would affect many pilots, and was a phenomenon that we will discuss more in a bat. Gyneemer was also one of the French pilots who often insisted on flying by himself on patrols, in a throwback to the early days of the air war before larger patrol groups became the norm. Guynemer was not alone in this among French pilots in continuing the practice of flying solo, and several would lose their lives due to their adherence to it. After he died Guynemer would be placed in the French Pantheon in Paris, becoming a symbol for all of the pilots lost during the war. Over his memorial would be placed the words “Capt. Guynemer, symbol of the aspirations and enthusiasm of the army of the nation, whose cupula alone was sufficient to span to shelter such wings.”

While the French were having some issues manufacturing the 200hp Hispano-Suiza they were at least making some changes and improvments to other areas of aviation production. During the year they were able to significantly reduce the different types of aircraft that were being produced, and while this did not fix the problem that some of these types were outdated it at least meant that more could be produced. In October aircraft were also given absolute priority over all other military goods. This included bringing back skilled workers from the front and shifting manufacturing capacity away from artillery and over to aircraft engines. This shift is perhaps the best possible illustration of the rise in important of aircraft in the last 2 years of the war, given how critical artillery was during the fighting and how much had been done to increase artillery production up to 1917. These changes meant that the French were able to produce 15,000 aircraft in 1917, just slightly more than the Germans and while the quality of some of these planes was below par, quantity does indeed have a quality all its own.

For the British, early 191y would be defined by just one month, April, which would be remembered as Bloody April. When the year began the situation looked good for the British if you just took numbers into account. Overall they had 41 squadrons of aircraft in France, with a total strength of around 750 aircraft. They were able to concentrated 365 of these for their attacks in Arras, and they would be met by just 195 German planes, everything was looking good. The large numerical advantage would not help them though. The Germans had taken the winter to equip as many squadrons with their best new planes, and to train the pilots of those planes. The British on the other hand were still flying the same planes that had been outclassed during the last 6 months of 1916, the FEB 2Cs and the DH1s. It was due to this technological disadvantage that the air over Arras became a shooting gallery for the Germans. In just one 5 day stretch between the 4th and 8th of April the British would lose 75 aircraft, with most of the pilots lost along with their planes. Over the course of the entire month 150 planes would be lost including a staggering 316 pilots. During this same timeframe the Germans would lose 120 planes, but they would only lose 120 pilots along with them, making the loses far less severe due to how easy it was to replace equipment. The technological disadvantage of the British could not explain all of their losses, or the fact that they were so severe in this specific month. General Henderson, the Director General of Military-Aeronautics in London, and seen by many as the father of the RFC, would write up his review and assessment of April 1917 and give these reasons for the losses “The increased number of casualties in the Field lately are due to several causes. In the first place, the retirement of the Germans over a large section of the front necessitated a great amount of long-distance reconnaissance and of photography. This is always dangerous work, and specially dangerous in this case because of the special efforts made by the Germans to stop it.” Whatever the reason for the losses, the loss of British pilots was almost crippling. While there were plenty of young men in training to be pilots when they reached the front their expected lifespan in mid-1917 was just 2.5 months for fighter pilots and 3.5 months for bomber and reconnaissance pilots. May 1917 would be on the worst months for new pilots as the British tried to make good on their losses from April and pushed some pilots to the front with as little as 20 hours of total flight time. While the British planes were outclassed and their pilots were inexperienced Trenchard and Haig continued to push the planes out over the German lines meaning that high casualty rates continued. Even if the British could get new planes, they might not have been anybody to fly them in the pace was continued. Eventually the morale in many squadrons just collapsed, with some units getting to the point where they directly disobeyed orders. Unfortunately for the British pilots the high loss rates, while never as high as April, would continue until November when orders were sent out to scale back operations to being saving men and machines for 1918.

Much like the French, on the British home front one of the themes of 1917 was to reduce the types of aircraft being produced. They were able to cut these from 55 to 30 in late 1917, with engine types reduced from 33 to 25. These efficencies, along with just more production capacity, meant that by the time that Third Ypres was kicking off in the fall the British were able to field almost double the number of German planes, many of which were newer and more capable that what they had put in the air during Bloody April. There was also some discussion of consolidating the RFC and Royal Navy Air Service into one arm and giving it to a new Air Ministry to try and make sure they were as coordinated as possible. It was hoped that this would make the RFC more effective in 1918.

A critical piece of the work on the home front was the design and production of new planes. The BE2s, DH1, and other planes that the British had started the year with had been shown as completely deficient for what was being asked of them. Relief was found in the form of several new planes that would begin reaching the front in large numbers in the summer of 1917. These were the Spad 13, Sopwith Camel and Triplane, the SE5, and the Bristol F2B. The Spad 13 was a design by the French that used their new Hispano-Suiza engine which gave it a blistering speed of 132 miles per hour and a ceiling of 24,000 feet. It also had two Vickers machine guns that could fire through the propeller. This was however never a plane that would be in large usage along the front due to the engine manufacturing problems. It would instead be the Sopwith Triplane and the SE5 that would play the primary role of regaining aerial superiority over the Albatros D3 and D5. The SE5 was the most important, being both maneuverable and fast. It was able to reach a top speed of 120 mph and was armed to the teeth with not only a Vickers machine gun firing through the propeller but also a Lewis gun on the upper wing. This plane was more than a match for the Albatros in aerial combat, and it also bested the German plane in a less glamourous way, aerial endurance. Endurance is often extremely underrated as a state for aircraft, especially in the early days of aviation when it was far more difficult to pinpoint enemy formations. The SE5 could be in the air for 2 and a half hours, a hour better than the Albatros, giving it more time to hunt for Germans then letting it dogfight with them longer once they were found. Another important plane that came into the British arsenal was the Sopwith Camel. It is probably the best known British fighter of the war and was given the nickname of Camel due to the hump in the fuselage created by its two machine guns. The Camel was the first British plane to have two machine guns firing forward through the propellers and it was also occasionally equipped with multiple Lewis guns on the wings. It also had a 130hp rotary engine which had both some advantages and disadvantages. To take off the pilot had to give it full right rudder until speed was gained because this was the only way to counteract the torque of the rotary engine. Also, when in the air the plane turned to the left extremely slowly. These slow left turns were caused by the rotation of the engine, but it also allowed for extremely quick right hand turns. This right hand spins were so quick that it was often better for a pilot to turn three quarters around to the right instead of one quarter to the left. While in the hands of an experienced pilot these kind of capabilities were valuable and powerful it also made it very dangerous for new pilots who were not experienced with handling is eccentricities. The Camel would go on to shoot down more enemy aircraft than any other plane in the war. Another important innovation for the British was the F2b Bristol Fighter. This was an aircraft that was a bit different than other fighters being produced in 1917 in that it was a two seater aircraft with a Vickers machine gun firing forward and an observer in the back with a Lewis gun on a ring mount. The British was so capable that it would remain in British service all the way until 1932 and it quickly became the practice of German squadrons to never engage a group of more than 2 Bristols no matter how much they were outnumbered due to the ability of the Bristols to engage and defeat the German planes because of its speed, survivability, and firepower. These planes would be the most glamourous, but other planes would also make their debut in 1917 like the DH5 ground-attack plane, the DH4 bomber, and the large Handley Page 0/100 and 0/400 bombers that were crewed by 4 men, were armed with up to 5 machine guns, and could carry 2000 pounds worth of bombs.

When the United States entered the war its air force was nothing to speak of, a total of just 90 men. It would play a role in 1918, but in 1917 it was a non-factor. There were however a group of Americans who had been active in the fighting for years before American entry. Since it was impossible for American citizens to officially fight with the Entente Americans who wished to join in the fighting often had to give up their citizenship, but they were of course welcomed with open arms by the manpower strapped French. 269 American volunteers would become pilots before the United States officially entered the war, and they would be spread out over a variety of French squadrons. The most famous of these squadrons would be one specifically created for American pilots, the Lafayette Escadrille. All of the pilots in this squadron were Americans, with only a French commander and a few rotating French officers joining their ranks. The Lafayette Escadrille was formed in May 1916 and would fly until the Americans officially entered the war at which point most of the pilots were transferred to American squadrons. They were outfitted with French aircraft and they received French pay, this pay was quite low by American standards but they were lucky enough to be supposed by several wealthy American businessmen. These businessmen gave money to the men in the form of regular pay, they made sure that the squadron was always properly outfitted, and they also paid out cash rewards for victories. By the time of American entry into the war 5 out or the original 7 pilots had been killed, and they were joined by 37 American pilots from other squadrons who lost their lives fighting for the French before April 1917. Their sacrifice is memorialized along with the Lafayette Escadrille as a whole by the Lafayette Memorial Arch, which was dedicated outside Paris in 1928.

One item that was a topic of conversation in all of the air forces during the war was parachutes. Much of the conversation after the war had revolved around why the British did not use parachutes during the war. Since the very beginning of the war parachutes were issued to the men manning observation balloons along the front. These parachutes were attached to the outside of the balloon basket and then attached to the observer by a long cord that would deploy the parachute if they jumped. These early parachutes were too bulky to be used by aircraft pilots but there were designers from several different countries working on making them lighter and more compact. As improvements were made and the weight and bulkiness of the parachutes decreased they came to be used by many pilots from several countries, but the British RFC rejected them. The core reason for this seems to have been the desire to make sure that pilots did not take the easy way out and abandon their plane in adverse situations. There was no issue giving them to balloonists, because they were defenseless, but fighter and bomber pilots were expected to complete their mission or die trying. The British Air Board gave an official statement that “It is also the opinion of the Board that the presence of such an apparatus might impair the fighting spirit of pilots and cause them to abandon machines which might otherwise be capable of returning to base for repair.” The resistance from the RFC leadership was very frustrating to many engineers who were working hard to make strides in parachute technology, one of these would be Everand Calthrop who would say of the leadership that “No one in high quarters had any time to devote to investigating the merits of an appliance whose purpose was so ridiculously irrelevant to war as the saving of life in the air.” Initially many pilots agreed with the rejection of parachutes, because early in the war their size and weight would have adversely affected performance. As planes became more capable and parachutes lighter this reasoning went away and many pilots began to want the parachutes, for obvious reasons. They voiced these desires but they often did not rise above squadron level because the squadron commanders did not want to bring it up with their commanding officers out of fear that they would be seen as weak or not demanding enough ‘offensive spirit’ from their pilots. There would always be some pilots who did not want the parachutes, in the same way that today there are people who do not want to wear motorcycle helmets or wear seat belts, but they were certainly in the minority. A study after the war would come to the conclusion that a third of all of the British pilots who were shot down during the war could have been saved if they had been provided with parachutes.

One of the most important changes during the war, especially as it related to later developments during the 20th century, was the bombing of civilian targets. This would be a normal fact of life in future wars, but during the first world war it was a very new concept. The use of zeppelins and large multi-engine bombers brought the war to the homefront away from the fighting in a way that had not been possible before, and these technological innovations brought with them all kinds of questions. The 1899 Hague Convention forbade “The throwing of projectiles from a balloon or an airplane on cities, villages, habitations, or buildings that were not defended.” However, this rule was slowly thrown out the window as technology allowed for more precise and devastating strikes against population and production centers. The Germans would be the primary perpetrators in the use of bombing of population centers, with London and Paris being hit several times during the war. For the Entente, while they would also launch raids against civilian targets for the most part they focused on strategic targets. Overall, the civilian cost of bombing raids was quite small but the psychological effect on the populations was far beyond just the number of dead and wounded. They were often not discussed in the same realm as other civilian atrocities during the war, I think because those kind of civilian targeted bombing campaigns would become the norm during the second world war. No country is eager to discuss how horrible civilian bombing was when they were planning on doing it themselves. In many ways they were the precursor, and just as impactful, as modern day terrorist attacks which while having small casualty numbers also have wide ranging effects on societies. The fact of the matter was that the citizens of the early 20th century were simply not mentally prepared for bombs to be raining from the skies.

While the air war was bringing new experiences to the home front, the men at the front were also trying to cope with the new type of warfare they were now embroiled in. While the pilots were in danger all the time, they still understood that they occupied a privileged position in the militaries of the day, especially when compared with the infantry in the trenches. A key point of this privilege was the fact that the pilots were able to get away from the danger after a day’s flying was done. Lieutenant Cecil Lewis would explain by saying “Once you are out of the air it was quiet, but it was safe! You see you were 15 or 20 miles behind the lines, you had a comfortable bed, you had sheets. You didn’t have this terrible strain that could occur if you never could get out of gunfire, out of the possibility of being hit even when you were asleep. So we lived, as it were, always in the stretch or the sag of nerves. We were either in deadly danger or we were in no danger at all. This conflict had a great effect on us all. It produced a certain strain, probably because of the change.” Sergeant Harold Taylor even believed that death in the air was preferable to what was experienced on the ground “What was the great difference between trench life and this life? In the trenches you faced death every second not knowing when it would come to you, but in the Flying Corps you could certainly say between flights that you had so many more hours to live, on the other hand, in the air, you could see death coming to you if your machine caught fire at a good height, with no parachute, you knew that it was the end, you could either stay in the machine or jump – but either way death was coming to you.” When the pilots retunred to their bases many were too exhausted to do much celebrating, often they would go directly to sleep, or maybe write a letter home, or just relax. One of the problems that the pilots and their superiors were dealing with, and which would get worse as the war progressed, was the altitude problem. This came in two forms, oxygen deficiency and temperature. Before the war the dangers of oxygen deficiency were well known, however the militaries during the war were slow to realize the effects that it would have on pilots. This was not a problem during 1914 and 1915 when most of the flying was done at a relatively low level, but later in the war pilots would routinely be flying at over 15,000 feet. The oxygen was so thin at this altitude that they would often return completely unable to remember anything that they had seen while in the air. There notes that they wrote down would also be completely incomprehensible. Oxygen systems would eventually be introduced, but many times pilots did not trust them. While the pilots could barely breath, they also had to deal with the crippling cold. Even with leather outer garments, layers of clothing, goggles, whale oil spread on any exposed skin, and every other attempt to stay warm hypothermia and frostbite were serious problems. While these two problems were not the biggest problems, that would always be the enemy, they just added more stress and strain onto what was already a very difficult job.

This mental strain would be unbearable for some men. Cecil Lewis, a British front line pilot for 8 months would believe that no pilot could serve indefinitely due to the constant mental stress placed on them by enemy action, unreliable aircraft, and constantly being on the edge of action. Here is Richard Bickers again to discuss “Despite the close comradeship, men whose nerves were stretched almost to breaking point were constantly irritable and intolerant of some of their companions’ mannerisms and characters. Many tried to avoid forming close friendships and became remote and introspective because they knew the grief that lay in wait when an intimate friend was killed. Drink became the solace and support of some. There were a few who resorted to the whisky or brandy bottle before every sortie.” These mental issues were not well understood or handled during the war, both because they were something ignored and because sometimes the men themselves did not want to be taken off of duty. This resulted in some really good pilots meeting their ends when they may not have needed to. Men like Guynemer who, after months and months of constant flying were just mentally wrecked. Many diaraies and journals of pilots at the front showcase a kind of descent into madness as their nerves frayed into oblivion. Regardless of what the pilots were experiencing mentally, or what they wrote in private correspondence, the legacy of the pilots would be one of individual heroism and bravery, in war filled with stories of mechanical impersonal slaughter. Sir Walter Raleigh, the author of part of the British Official History would write that “The recruits of the air were young, some of them not more than boys. Their training lasted only a few months. They put their home life behind them, or kept it only as a fortifying memory and threw themselves with fervour and abandon into the work to be done. Pride in their squadron became a part of their religion. The demands made upon them, which, it might reasonably have been believed, were greater than human nature can endure, were taken by them as a matter of course; they fulfilled them, and went beyond. They were not a melancholy company; they had something of the lightness of the element in which they moved. Indeed, it would be difficult to find, in the world’s history, any body of fighters who, for sheer gaiety and zest could hold a candle to them. They have opened up a new vista for their country and mankind. Their story, if it could ever be fully and truly written, is the Epic of Youth.” These men were doing something that had never been done in history, and even with the danger, stress, probability of death, many of them would not have traded it for the world.