The key to successful air-to-air combat was first discovered by the French and then refined by the Germans. In late 1914 Roland Garros, one of the leading prewar French airmen, began work on a synchronizing gear to prevent the machinegun from firing when the propeller blades passed in front of it; because the synchronizing gear did not work all the time, he shielded the propeller with deflector blades. Garros shot down three German aircraft in an eighteen day period from 1 April 1915; but on 18 April he himself was shot down by anti-aircraft fire, and both he and his aircraft fell into German hands. As was so often the case in the First World War, the Germans took a first-class French idea and refined it. They were already working on such a device, but now they were spurred on by knowledge that the French were also working on the problem. A Dutch entrepreneur in Germany, Anthony Fokker, and his design team evolved a successful interrupter gear that prevented the machine-gun from firing when the propeller was directly in front of it. Offered the chance to test the mechanism, Fokker declined at the last moment and left it to German pilots to test the new technology.
Beginning in August 1915 the Germans, flying the Fokker Eindekker, took an increasing toll of British and French aircraft in the west. Because the Germans were on the defensive in that theater, the Eindekkers remained over German-held territory and none fell into Allied hands. Allied pilots attempted various makeshift devices to get round the propeller problem. Captain Lanoe Hawker strapped a machine-gun on the side of his Scout with a slightly downward trajectory in order to miss the propeller. In late July 1915 he actually shot down a German reconnaissance aircraft flying straight and level, for which action he received a Victoria Cross – deserved more for his flying skill than for his bravery.
With their technical advantage a small group of Fokker pilots began shooting down increasing numbers of Allied aircraft. Led by two superb pilots, Max Immelmann, ‘the Eagle of Lille’, and Oswald Boelcke, who flew together, the Germans developed embryonic air-to-air tactics. Gaining height advantage over their opponents, the Germans attacked out of the sun, so that more often than not their opponents never saw them. Thus carne the British aphorism that stood the test of time in two world wars: ‘Beware the Hun in the sun.’ So successful were the Fokkers that Sir Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps in France, ordered that at least three fighting machines must cover reconnaissance missions.
The French had enjoyed considerable success over their lines through summer 1915; but the appearance of the Fokkers in late summer impacted even more decisively on their operations than on those of the British. The French stayed too long with the aircraft types that had given them superiority in spring 1915. Thus, the devastating impact of the Fokkers severely affected French operations over the whole front. It also forced the French to move from daylight bombing operations to night-time operations, with all the difficulties in navigation and target location that such operations entailed.
Immelmann and Boelcke were the first real heroes of the air war. Each received the Pour Ie Merite awards, the ‘Blue Max’, in mid-January 1916 for shooting down their eighth enemy aircraft. Their fame had much to do with the grim struggle on the ground, which seemed to have too much heroism in its slaughter, but no identifiable heroes. Yet the German tactical approach remained largely defensive. They flew small patrols over their own territory; moreover, the German high command parcelled the Fokkers out among the various reconnaissance and balloon squadrons. Thus, while the Germans inflicted increasingly heavy casualties on their opponents, they failed to obtain anything resembling air superiority.
Throughout 1915 the Germans remained on the defensive and used their army reserves against Russia and in the Balkans. For their part, the Allies launched a series of offensives that resulted in heavy casualties, particularly among French forces. Incremental improvements in artillery tactics, which depended on the connection between aerial observation and reconnaissance, were not sufficient to break the deadlock on the Western Front. On the other side of the no-man’s-land, the Germans were constructing increasingly sophisticated defenses with deep dugouts, massive belts of barbed wire and additional trench lines to which defenders could fall back. In fact, both sides were adapting and innovating under the pressures of war, on the ground and in the air. In biological terms the Western Front was a complex adaptive process out of which modern war would eventually emerge – but the cost would be enormous.
The British exacerbated their problems in the air by a casual approach to training that sent pilots overseas with as little as five hours solo flying time, and treated the training of observers in the most casual fashion. The future air marshal Sholto Douglas described this training policy as ‘sheer murder’, which it was. Moreover, the difficulties of economic mobilization, for which none of the major powers had prepared, were affecting everything from the production of artillery shells to the production of aircraft.
The French Nieuport 11 fighter was an outstanding fast and maneuverable aircraft.
In December 1915 the chief of the German General Staff and High Command, General Erich von Falkenhayn, determined to fight a battle of attrition at Verdun to bleed the French Army white. The German attack began in February with a massive artillery bombardment, followed by heavy infantry attacks. In the muddled thinking that so often passed for military competence in the First World War, Falkenhayn never intended to overwhelm the French defenses. Rather he hoped to entice the French into feeding their reserves into a meat-grinder battle in which German artillery would wreck the French army: However, advancing down the right bank of the Meuse in the early attacks, the Germans came increasingly under heavy French artillery fire from the left bank. As Marshal Philippe Petain summed it up: ‘These people don’t know their business. ‘The Germans failed equally in the air battle over Verdun. They set up barrier patrols which minimized the advantage they had possessed with the Fokkers at the beginning of the battle. But the French soon introduced a new aircraft, the Nieuport 11, the first aircraft exclusively designed for the fighter mission. Called’Ie Bebe’ by its pilots, the Nieuport was superior in speed and maneuverability to the Fokker. As the French still lacked synchronized machine-guns, the Nieuport mounted its weapons on its upper wings – which made for difficulty in loading new drums of ammunition – but the aircraft’s other characteristics gave the French considerable advantages over their opponents.