156: The Air War: 1918


While the war was coming to a climax on the Western Front, in the skies above pilots and machines were reaching new heights.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 156. Thank you Caleb, Bradley, Moreno, and Mike. In this episode we will once again be discussing the war in the air. I would describe this as something of a random topics episode. We will of course be discussing the role of the air forces of Europe in 1918, but we will also be digging into some other topics like bombing and the British patrols at sea to counteract the U-Boat threat. We will then close out this episode, once again, by looking at the toll that aerial combat took on the pilots during the war. We covered this topic in our last episode on the air war but then I read a new article on the subject earlier this year, so I feel the need to discuss it again. We will only briefly touch on the precise actions of the air forces during the 1918 actions during this episode, but you can expect a lot more discussions on that topic during our episodes focusing on the German Spring Offensives and then the Allied Hundred Days offensives to close out the war.

We start today with the German air forces. To put it bluntly, 1918 was a rough year. There were three main problems and the first was the simple math of numbers. Over the weatern front the German units were greatly outnumbered by the Allied air forces for most of the year, and that numerical disadvantage only got worse as 1918 continued. The second problem was one of supply. By mid-1918 the German planes were consuming roughly 10,000 tons of fueld every month, but they were only receiving about half of that every month which was obviously a problem. This was just one of the problems that Germany had in supplying the military due to a severe shortage of very specific raw materials like oil, rubber, and food. The third problem for the German air services was manpower. Just like the German army the German air forces were beginning to scrape the bottom of the manpower barrel in 1918 and this forced them to send their existing pilots on more sorties and to put themselves in greater danger against ever mounting odds. This would begin to have serious negative consequences for even their best pilots, like for example Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, who would die on Apirl 21st when his plane was hit by groundfire. All of these problems were balanced against some of the few advantages that the Germans had, one of which was the quality of their planes. Near the end of April the Fokker D7 began to arrive at the front, and it would be a plane that would rank among the top of the list for fighters during the war. With its new BMW it was able to cut the time that it took to climb to 5,000 feet in half, a critical task which dictated how fast it coudl engage enemy aircraft. There would never be enough of the D7s to really turn the tide, and near the end of the war they stopped arriving all together partially due to a strike at the Fokker factory in early November, part of a large series of labor revolts near the end of the war all of which are a story for a later date.

While the Germans were experiencing these problems they would still endeavor to launch their attacks in the spring, and in that attack airpower would play an important role. Planes would do reconnaissance right before the infantry attack began and then they would be tasked with missions against enemy air strips, railway stations, and known troop gathering points. Once these missions were complete they would then shift into a close support role for the infantry as they moved forward. For these purposes the Germans would have 730 aircraft just for the first of their attacks, Operation Michael, half of which were fighters. They would fly against about 580 British planes, against with about half being fighters. These large numbers resulted in one of the largest aerial battles of the war, but the Germans were hampered in their greater goals by the gof that lay over the battlefield. This fog made it difficult to properly harass retreating British units and to hit the stationary targets that were assigned to them. While the fog was a problem for the pilots, it was perfect for the infantry and it played a non-insignificant role in the German successes in the opening days of the attack. When the weather cleared the German air forces could go to work and as a result the British RFC was hit harder than either side necessarily expected with many airfields being hit and partially taken out of action. Unfortunately for the German fliers, and this is where the Allied advantages really showed their worth, when the RFC was forced to pull back it was able to move to new airfields where they found new planes waiting for them, easily replacing what had been lost.

As the Germans moved forward they also found themselves having to find new airfields. This was easier in some areas than in others, with the old Somme battlefield proving particularly troublesome. All along the front they had to find new airfields while also continuing their efforts to keep the British planes out of the sky while also maintaining a full schedule of ground attacks. The first of these tasks was particularly important as the attacks continued and the British continued to try and use aerial reconnaissance to identify and prepare for German attacks. The Germans were not completely successful in keeping the British planes from doing these recon runs, but they were assisted by the British sometimes not believing in perfectly correct information that they received, like on April 6th when they did not believe that the Germans were about to launch a serious attack against a Portuguese position. In May the Germans would whift both their infantry reserves and their air forces to the south and on the Chemin des Dames they were once again able to obtain an advantage. With the help of the newly arrived Fokker D7 the Germans were able to hit and neutralize several French airfields. Also during this attack the weather was better and the Germans had worked out better ways to solve some of their communication problems. These improvements resulted in their ground attack patrols behind enemy lines being far more effective which kept even more French units away from the front. Unfortunately for the Germans the Chemin des Dames would represent the high water mark for their efforts in the air and during early June they would begin suffering casualties that they simply could not recover from.

By mid-Uly the British and French were able to create a crushing numerical superiority on any point of the front that they desired. For example for the Battle of Amiens, with many German planes still in the south, they were able to create a 1900 to 364 advantage over the German air services. On the entire front the Germans were forced to concentrate as many fighters as they could around a few very critical targets, but when the Allies came to attack these targets the Germans were forced to fight, and the attrition that they suffered when they did was simply unsustainable. This was also around the time that the fueld shortages really started to become a serious problem. With all of these problems becoming acute at this point it was only the slight qualitative advantage from planes like the D7 that prevented a total collapse of the German effort in the air.

One area that would see a lot of evolution during the last few years of the war, and one that would greatly affect the aerial combat in future wars, was strategic bombing. Strategic bombing, as a concept, had been a topic of conversation in many of the air forces around Europe, and they had also been working on planes that could makke it a reality. It would be the Germans that would launch the first great strategic bombing campaign using their Gotha G-IV and Riesenflugzeuge, or R-Type, bombers. The Gotha’s had been in development since the start of the war and they had a range of 500 miles, making them more than capable of flying against London from their bases in Belgium. The Goth would be joined in night bombing raids by its larger cousin, the Riesenflugzeuge. This massive plane was able to carry up to 2 tons of bombs, had a crew of nine, and had a wingspan of 138 feet which is roughly the same as that of a B-29 Bomber from World War 2. The Gotha’s would launch their first large raids against Paris in late January 1918. These raids would be less successful than the raids against the British, partily because the bombers had a greater difficultuy finding their targets and then getting to them. This is a bit perplexing since Paris was only two hours from the front, but of the 483 total flights sent against Paris over the course of the bombing campaign, only a paltry 37 planes made it to the city. This was balanced against the 13 brought down by enemy action and the number that were destroyed due to accidents, which was an even higher number. In total the Paris raids would only result in the death of 206 civilians, with 603 more wounded.

There would be another campaign against the British Isles and London launched later in the year, with the first daylight raids flying over London in early May. The heaviest week of the bombing was in mid-May when 43 Gothas flew 4 nights worth of raids. All 43 would be present for the last of the raids, on May 19th, during which 13 of them would be lost, 6 to enemy action and 7 to accidents. During these efforts 30 tons of bombs would be dropped all over England. On May 25 the raid on Folkestone resulted in 290 killed and injured, on June 13th a raid on London’s EAst End caused 594 casualties, and on July 7th another raid resulted in 250. These numbers might have been much higher if not for the fact that in late May the Germans had mostly reassigned the bombers to providing army support missions over the Western Front. After this change in focus the giant planes, instead of flying over the channel, would instead load up with as many bombs as possible and fly against targets behind the front, often repeating the process as often as 3 times a night.

These types of raids obviously prompted a British response, and the first of these was to bring two fighter squadrons back from the front to protect London. They set these fighters in airfields to the east of the city and they began to practice and evolve tactics to stop further attacks. A critical piece of these tactics was to attack the formations of bombers in groups, with single aircraft being too vulnerable to the multiple machine guns that each bomber carried. These types of efforts meants that as the Germans continued to launch raids against British cities there was a growing number of planes that simply did not return. Without the manufacturing capacity to keep up with this attrition, the bombing raids were forces to slow down and then eventually come to a halt. Over the course of the raids against the British 856 people would die, and a further 1956 would be wounded. Sadly for the citizens of Britain, this was just a small taste of what would come during the Blitz.

While the British beefed up their defenses, they also joined with the French to launch their own strategic bombing offensive. This bombing campaign became one of attrition. When we look at just the French efforts during this campaign. They would fly their Breguet XIV bomber, and they would escort them with Caudron R.XI heavy fighters. These planes would drop 200 tons of bombers during the first quarter of the year, during which time they lost 20 aircraft to German defenses. In the second quarter of the year the would drop 500 tons, but lose 50 more. Then in the third quarter they would finally overwhelm the Germans and drop 700 tons of bombs while only losing 30 aircraft. The British would launch an even greater number of raids and drop even more bombs, launching raids day and night during the entire year. In total over 500 different raids took place, flaying as far as they could reach to cities like Cologne and Frankfurt. Much like the German boombing of London, this would be but a precursor to the obliteration that the German cities would experience during the Second World War.

1918 would see a bit of a reorganization of the British Royal Flying Corps, and the creation of one of the most recognizable air forces in the world. In January 1918 Jan-Christian Smuts, from South Africs but part of the British government at the time, suggested that the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service be merged together. They would then be placed under an Air Ministry that would be better able to coordinate all of the British aerial resources. This was completed in January, and then in April the new Royal Air Force, or RAF, was created. Even with the centralization of the British efforts, they never reached the point where they could create enough engines for all of the planes they produced, and even in 19918 almost a third had to be equipped with French engines. While this centralization was a good step, it did not solve all of the problems that the British pilots at the front faced. In general the British pilots were flying the same aircraft that they had in 1917, just with more powerful engines. They certainly liked having more power, but it did not make up for all of their shortcomings. But what they lacked in quality, they more than made up for in quantity, and this advantage allowed them to continue to aggressively pursue aerial action whenever the opportunity presented itself. This resulted in high casualties for the British, but it also forced high casualties upon the Germans as well.

During 1918 the French were really the backbone of the Allied effort in the air, but not necessarily in the most obvious way. The French were pursuing a 4,000 plane program, to get 4,000 planes to the front at any given time, and they were in a position to meet this goal except for the fact that they gave so much help to their allies. The British constantly needed more engines, and the Americans needed literally everything and while the French produced over 24,000 planes and 45,000 engines thousands of both of these would go to the British and Americans which reduced the number of French forces in the air, but obviously helped them in the overall war effort.

While the Germans massed their planes to support their spring offensives the Allies massed theirs to defend against them. One tactic that began to be heavily used by the Allies during the summer of 1918 was interdiction attacks against German supply lines. There was a concerted effort not to execute close air support attacks over the fighting front, with the British being particularly adamant that this was a bad way to spend resources, and isntead planes were sent to attack German supply and logistics capabilities behind the front. This occurred both during the Germans advantage, when the British artillery was in full retreat and some of the slack had to be taken up by the new RAF, but also during their attacks later in the year. During both of these actions the Allied planes would fly ground attack missions to try and disrupt the movement of German reserves. These missions certainly caused damage and they were a huge concern for German commanders. German commanders were so concerned about them that they would generally put far too much blame on the airplanes instead of on the shortcomings of their abilities. General von Kuhl would even go so far as to say that half of the German casualties during their attacks were caused by RAF ground attack missions, which is just absurd Ludendorff would also put some of the blame for the German failure on the British planes by saying ‘…the ammunition was not sufficient, and supply became difficult. All troops, especially mounted troops, had suffered heavily from bombing by hostile airmen.’ It was not all triumphant successes for the RAF though, one example of a failure was at the battle of Hamel when the RAF was given the task of destroying the bridges over the river Somme to prevent the Germans from retreating. During this effort over 70 aircraft would be lost without achieving the objective.

We shift gears now to talk about the contributions of the British dominions to the aerial war effort in Europe. Before the war many of the British dominions had at least some preparations for a future air war. South Africa, Australia, and India all had flying schools and had some trained pilots. This resulted in 6 South African, 6 British officers from the Indian Army, 1 Australian, and 1 New Zealander being sent to the RFC in August 1914. Early in the war the recruitment of new pilots from around the globe was not really an official policy that the British pursued in a coherent and efficient way but an individual who would motivated could often find his way into RFC service. A small fact that I found interesting was that the War Office charged the dominions 450 pounds for every pupil that was sent through the flying schools in Britain.

One dominion that I did not mention on the previous list was Canada, and they would have their first real recruitment drive in early 1915. While there was not a lot of structure around this recruitment, it did not stop Canadian volunteers from finding their way to Europe to pilot Britihs planes. By the middle of 1916 a tenth of all RFC pilots in France were from Canada, and this percentage would continue to rise. This kind of ad-hoc situation would continue until 1917 when RFC Canada was created and headquartered in Toronto. Around this same time a new aircraft factory began producing its first planes in Toronto and from that date forward the contributions of the RFC Canada and the factory would skyrocket. By the end of 1918 there would be over 10,000 air and ground crew trained for service in Toronto and sent to the RAF, with another 2,000 being forwarded to the Americans. By the end of the year the Canadian schools were outputting 230 graduates every month, and if this continued to rise in 1919 it would have meant a full quarter of the RAFs needed replacements would have come from Canada in that year.

Australia would raise its first full squadron of pilots in September 1915 and in Spring 1916 they would be sent to Egypt to join the RFC. While this, and future squadrons, would remain part of the Australian Flying Corps, they would also be a unit of the RFC and they would be under their control. They took orders from RFC officers, pulled supplies from RFC depots, and used all kids of speciality equipment which of course the Australian government had to pay for. There wouold be three more Australian squadrons raised by the end of 1916 and while at time they had to fill in their ranks with British officers there were always considered Australian units. In total, 4,500 men would be part of the Australian Flying Corps, with a further 800 being part of the RFC or RAF.

South Africa began down the same path as Australia, raising its first full squadron in 1915, but instead of sending more squadrons in 1916 it instead opted to focus on maintaining the first at full strength. The total number of South Africans who ended up serviing in the RFC or RAF isn’t precisely known, but it was probably somewhere around 3,000. For New Zealand they travelled on a different path from the start, and instead of creating their own squadron they instead just ent pilots to fly with RFC units. Any civilian who qualified at one of the private flying schools in New Zealand, and then passed a medical exam, could opt to be sent to Europe on a trip paid for by the New Zealand government. There they would be trained and then would serve in RFC units. In total about 850 New Zealand pilots would take this path.

Overall, pilots from the dominions would make up a small but important percentage of the total pilots in the RFC. They would make up about 10 percent of the total number of pilots in the RFC during the war, but would make up a fifth of its total casualties. While they paid the price in men, the dominions did gain something from the sacrifice. Some of the veterans would get commissions in the RAF, but most of them would return home and they brought with them flying experience that was a great benefit to the development and evolution of both military and civilian aviation in their home countries. This would dramatically accelerate the capabilities of the Dominion air services in the inter-war period.

We now shift gears, once again, to discuss the actions of the Royal Naval Air Service, specifically those actions around its efforts to contribute to fighting against the German U-Boat campaigns in the last two years of the war. After the Germans declared their second unrestricted U-Boat campaign in 1917 the need to increase the defenses against U-Boat patrols became even more critial and while the biggest role in this was played by destroyers and other ships of the Royal Navy, they were also assisted from the air. Seaplanes, flying boats, airships, and just large multi-engine planes based on land all played a role. The larger planes could also carry enough ordinance to execute their own attacks if they found a submarine, instead of just needing to inform on their positions. One model of flying boat, the F2A ,was powered by two engines and could carry 500 pounds of bombs, and perhaps most importantly it could patrol for up to 6 hours. This model would be improved on until future models could carry 900 pounds of bombs and event a 6 pounder recoilless gun. While the planes became larger and more capable, they also found themselves in possession of newer technologies. The most powerful of these technologies was the hydrophone. The early hydrophone experiements had been done with airships, but it was found that they could also be equipped to seaplanes. The hydrophone is really just a microphone designed for underwater use, and it could be used to locate submarines as htey moved. While this piece of technology became more important in 1918, it would never fully replace the traditional aerial spotting role of the aircraft on patrol.

The patrols were organized over certain areas of the Western Approaches and the North sea and while the long flights were exhausting for the crews, the presence of eyes in the sky, even if they were unarmed, was a deterant against U-Boat operations. Planes were grouped into staggered flights to provide almost constant cover over convoys during daylight hours. Airships were also found to be very useful for this type of patrol since they had the endrance to almost constantly sweep in front of the convoys as they moved. Some convoys were event equipped with their own kit-balloons that they would tow behind a ship and then have a spotter connected to the ship via telephone cable. The exact tactics would evolve during the war, but the efforts of the Royal Naval Air Service, and then the RAF, utilizing almost every tool in their arsenal, was critical to curtailing the German U-Boat threat.

We are going to close out this episode, for I think the second straight time when talking about the air war, by talking about the mental strain of flying during the war. The reason for this bit of possible duplication is due to the recent release of The Nervous Flyer: Nerves, Flying and the First World War by Lynsey Shaw Cobden which was featured in the February 2018 edition of the British Journal of Military History. I should note that the British Journal of Military History is available for free online, and you can just go to their site and grab the PDFs. I am a huge supporter of open access to research journals, and showing them support is a great way to make more history free for everyone. You can visit their website at bjmh.org.uk or follow them on Twitter for updates. There is also a link to the February edition of the journal in the show notes. I will start off this section by just given a quote from the introduciton of The Nervous Flyer “The erosion of mental and physical strength, energy and resilience that afflicted pilots during arduous periods at the Front, and most oppressively at this period if they were heavily committed to strafing, was not, for most of them, caused by fear of death. It was the daily flinching from it that wore out the nerves. Its effects grew on them day by day, ravaged the constitution and undermined their sanity. Most of them were too young ever to have taken any aspect of life seriously, but they found the demands of their task were causing so radical a change of attitude that many wondered if they would ever be carefree and joyous again. The end of the war would come too late. They would be changed men and remain permanently different from the men they had been.”

The Medical Officers of Europe entered the war without any real idea about the kinds of problems that military aviation would face during the war. While this was true about the physical toll that would be taken on the body, the mental strain that the pilots would be under was even more unknown. It also took some time to problems to begin to occur. In the first few years of the conflict aerial combat was rare, and the pilots were flying below 10,000 feet which prevented any kind of problems from oxyben deprevation. The biggest problem early in the war was the cold, but that could be at least somewhat mitigated with proper equipment which they generally had.

As technology advanced though, there began to be medical problems experienced by pilots that were not seen in other soldiers and which were not easy to explain. The British began to refer to this as neurasthenia, or a nervous condition which caused extreme fatigue. The Germans called it flying sickness and believed that it was caused by the large changes in temperature and air pressure that the pilots experienced on a daily basis. As the problems became worse the British were forced to take action, and in early 1917 a specialist research committee was created to research and consider the medical problems of flying. Lieutenant-Colonel Martin Flack would summarize the thinking at the time as “Modern flying, by its complex and nerve-trying evolutions in a rarefied atmosphere imposes a great strain upon the aviator, especially at high altitudes. In consequence breakdown is frequent, the patients being found to suffer from gradual loss of power to fly high, associated in addition to frequent psychological manifestations…” It was found that one of the biggest problems was that of hypoxia, or the lack of oxygen, that was present ofr all pilots at over 12,000 feet. The constant bouts of hypoxia, when coupled with the huge amount of stress put the pilots in a general state of overwhelming exhaustion. Pilots were often seen to stumble from their planes, with little idea of what had happened in the air, with only the desire to rest. Here is another quote from Cobden “It was widely held that a supply of oxygen in the aircraft would reduce the effects of fatigue. Field experiments were conducted at Brooklands Aerodrome to establish if the use of oxygen would increase mental alertness and muscular vigour at altitude, and abolish lethargy on the ground. Lieutenant-Colonels Martin Flack and Charles Heald monitored the performance of flyers on short sorties, with and without oxygen, and established that supply abolished fatigue at low altitudes and delayed its onset in longer flights. The results convinced them that the administration of oxygen would result in fewer nervous breakdowns, success in air combat, favourable returns to duty, and the increased use of flying skills.”

By the end of the war there was a much better understanding of at least the physical strain of flying, it had tken time but eventually it was also found that aviation simply presented new and different psycholocial and physicla problems that would have to be accounded for. One piece of the puzzle that was missing though, and that was not accounted for during the war is what the modern medical world wouold call post-traumatic stress. Because this was not a concept that the medical world of 1918 really understood it resulted in the doctors of the time trying to place everything in the context of a physical problem that then caused mental strain. Just like the shell-shock, where it was first associated with the physical explosive force of the artillery, for pilots everything was brought back to hypoxia, but that was not the cause of everything. There was a cost to the constant mental strain of combat, but it would take further decades of study before it was really understood.

Overall, the last year of the first world war saw the air forces of Europe at a technological and tactical position that the armies of 1914 could not have imagined. Planes were flying higher, faster, farther, and with greater payloads than every before. The emergence of techniques like strategic bombing, close air support, and aerial dogfighting setup for a centuray of air focused combat. The emphasis placed on strategic bombing from the end of the war until the rise of ICBM had its roots in the German, British, and French campaigns of 1918. Close air support would first be used by the Germans would become a critical part of air planning before the SEcond World War.Aerial combat, dogfighting, and the rise of the pilot super start would set the stage for some of the greatest aerial combat in history in World War 2. Air power would become one of the most important facets of military htinking and for the next century, even until today, it would become the primary way that nations project power all around the globe. All of it, from Spitfires and 109s, to B-17s, Lancasters, and Halifaxes, to F-15s and Mig-29s, all of them trace their roots back to those brave pilots who took to the air during the first world war, in their flimsy machines made of wood and canvas.