Early British WWI Air Power I

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Pre-war plans had called for the creation of eight squadrons to support an Army of six divisions. Kitchener had ambitious plans for a BEF with no less than six armies, each with three corps with three divisions each. Working on a basis of one squadron for every corps, one for each Army headquarters, and six squadrons at GHQ, Brancker arrived at a required front line strength of thirty squadrons. Kitchener dismissed this as timid and, rather arbitrarily, told Brancker to double it, but a tenfold increase in front line strength was entirely beyond the means of the underdeveloped British aircraft industry. The home command had difficulty maintaining the existing RFC squadrons at full strength, even though the only significant losses in these early months were the result of accidents.

Industry was slow to adapt to the new circumstances. Initially, firms like Rolls-Royce assumed peace and their lucrative luxury car market would soon return. Only when it became clear the war would not be over by Christmas did companies begin to realise war contracts were the only way of surviving. After initially refusing to get involved, Rolls-Royce agreed to build air-cooled Renault engines under licence. They were also asked to develop an air-cooled engine of their own design, but as the company only had experience of water-cooled engines, they decided to develop one of these instead. The result would be the Eagle and a scaled-down version, the Falcon, two of the best engines developed in the First World War.

In the last four months of 1914, the entire British aircraft industry only built ninety-nine engines. A total of 144 aircraft were delivered to the RFC in France in this period. It was the spring of 1915, eight months after the outbreak of war, before the eighth of the pre-war planned squadrons began to form, and rather than the eighteen aircraft per squadron planned before the war, the establishment of each squadron had to be limited to twelve. In the spring of 1915, front line strength stood at just eighty-five planes.

The Neuve Chapelle offensive was the first major British effort of 1915. It was a small-scale tactical operation with the limited aim of eliminating a potentially dangerous German salient. If the first stage proceeded satisfactorily, an effort might be made to gain the slightly higher ground around Aubers, which in turn would merely be a preparatory step for a possible major assault on Lille. In the build up to the offensive, lavish use was made of aerial photography. The front under attack was photographed to a depth of between 700 and 1,500 yards, providing commanders with detailed maps of the defences that faced them.

It was anticipated that as soon as the attack was launched, the Germans would switch reserves from quieter sectors of the front; to prevent this, planes would be used to seal off the battle zone. This was the first time RFC bombers would be involved in a pre-planned and co-ordinated bombing operation. From the afternoon of the first day of the offensive, air units from the 2nd and 3rd Wings attached to neighbouring armies not directly involved in the operation would bomb railway lines and stations behind the German front. The initial assault on 10 March was preceded by a short thirty-five-minute artillery barrage provided by nearly 350 guns. The bombardment proved effective and the village of Neuve Chapelle was quickly captured. In the afternoon, the RFC implemented its plans to attack railway stations, but this only involved single aircraft bombing five railway stations and junctions with 25-lb and 100-lb bombs. In at least two of these attacks, spectacular results were apparently achieved. Even a lone aircraft dropping its bombs from a couple of hundred feet would inevitably cause temporary mayhem. Agents enthusiastically reported delays of up to three days, but the bombers did not prevent or even delay the movement of German reserves. It would not be the last time that far too much was expected of far too few planes. Later and far more substantial efforts at battlefield interdiction in this and future conflicts would prove to be equally unrewarding.

Attempts to renew the advance on 10 March proved a costly failure, partly because of a shortage of artillery ammunition. Poor weather also robbed the reconnaissance squadrons of the opportunity to direct artillery, and communications between the front and command centres deteriorated rapidly with the destruction of telephone lines by enemy fire. Knowing exactly how far friendly forces had advanced and therefore where to place supporting artillery fire was becoming a major problem. Wireless equipment was still far too bulky for advancing infantry to carry into battle, but planes could carry it. Therefore, for the follow-up attack on Aubers Ridge in May 1915, wireless-equipped Maurice Farmans patrolled above the advancing infantry to report their position, marking the debut of the so called ‘contact patrols’. The attack towards Aubers Ridge was due to be launched on 7 May, but when misty weather, which would rule out effective air observation, was forecast, it was postponed until 9 May. It was a measure of how important aerial reconnaissance had become that poor weather was enough to call off an operation. This time, the short pre-assault barrage did not have the desired result, and the attack was repulsed with heavy losses. The Farman ‘contact patrols’ were a failure. The infantry did not reach the points where it had been decided they would lay out the identifying white strips, and the Farmans were not flying low enough to identify where the infantry were. Further to the rear, bombers made another effort to interdict the battle zone, but it was a total failure with no aircraft even claiming success. Artillery direction was more successful with aircraft mostly being used to direct fire towards known German batteries in pre-arranged shoots, but troop concentrations spotted during the course of missions were also shelled.

The failure of this attack led to calls for more substantial artillery support. The attempt to capture the village of Festubert on 15 May was preceded by four days of shelling. The infantry attacked under the cover of darkness, some progress was made and a number of enemy trenches were captured; however, some of the advancing infantry were hit by friendly artillery fire, which would discourage using darkness for cover in future attacks. Aircraft could only observe in daylight, so the infantry had to attack in daylight. Each new engagement reinforced the importance of aerial artillery observation to the point where the weather, and the ability of aircraft to fly, became the determining factors in whether an offensive should go ahead or not. During the initial stages of a local counter-attack at Hooge in August 1915, air observations enabled friendly artillery to suppress enemy fire, but when the weather suddenly deteriorated and the aircraft were grounded, the scale of enemy artillery increased noticeably. The persistent shortage of shells was another reason why aircraft-directed fire was preferred to indiscriminate blanket barrages; efficiency had become a critical aspect. British Army commanders began designing their tactics around the need for aerial observation.

The Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge offensives had sent mixed signals about the value of short, sharp artillery barrages. Rather prematurely, the advantages of surprise would be forsaken for the apparent certainty that given sufficient time, artillery would destroy all the defences that lay in the path of the infantry. Lengthy pre-offensive artillery barrages became the norm, even though they inevitably gave the enemy all the warning they needed about where the attack was coming, and plenty of time to organise reserves.

While aircraft were demonstrating their ability to direct artillery, the bombing of communication targets in the rear was not producing such noteworthy results. A report on RFC bombing operations between 1 March and 20 June 1915 concluded that the results were ‘in no way commensurate with the efforts made’ and ‘it may well be as well to eliminate bomb dropping altogether from their role, and to confine them to reconnaissance, observation and fighting in the air, in which they have proved their value and for which the Allies cannot have too many aeroplanes’. The report claimed that of 141 attacks on railway stations, only three had been successful. It was particularly scathing of attacks on ‘enemy billets’, which usually meant the random bombing of French and Belgian villages and towns in which, inevitably, ‘the wrong people get killed’. The report went on to suggest that better results might be achieved if bombing was carried out by specialist bomber squadrons and disorganised individual attacks were replaced by operations in which aircraft bombed simultaneously and in strength. Most crucially, it emphasised that if the tactical bombing of targets in the rear was to have any effect, it had to be very closely related to ongoing operations at the front, simply because any disruption caused was likely to be very short lived. A small delay during a crucial phase of a battle might be important, while a small delay when there were no ongoing operations served no purpose. The report stated that following these principles ought to result in tactical bombing making a more useful contribution, but it warned it would be unrealistic to ever expect decisive results. It was a report that could have been describing any number of future air interdiction programmes in the First World War and many subsequent conflicts. The report on bombing also referred to the importance of ‘fighting in the air’, an aspect of air warfare that it rated just as important as observation and reconnaissance. In the early stages of the war, there had been relatively little air combat. As the report suggested, in 1915, this was beginning to change.

Developing an efficient fighting plane had been one of the RFC’s top pre-war priorities and the failure to do so was its biggest disappointment. The only consolation was that no other nation had been any more successful. But the lack of suitable equipment was not going to stop RFC pilots from trying. Just days after the RFC arrived in France, a couple of B.E.2s armed with handguns and a Henri Farman, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Strange, with a gunner armed with one of few available Lewis machine guns, attempted to take-off and intercept an aircraft approaching their airfield. From a standing start, it proved quite impossible to get anywhere near the intruder. The handicap of the relatively light Lewis gun was so great that Farman crews preferred to make do with a rifle, which at least made it more likely they would get within range of the opponent. The first victory was gained on 25 August when three B.E.2s assailed a German Taube with pistols, startling the German pilot to such a degree that he put his plane down in the nearest field. A couple of days later, an unarmed Sopwith Tabloid achieved the same result by aggressive feint attacks. It was hardly a method that could be relied on.

A few days later, Henderson was signalling home: ‘There are no aeroplanes with the Royal Flying Corps that are really suitable for carrying machine guns … Request you endeavour to supply efficient fighting machines as soon as possible.’ It would prove to be a long and tortuous path before these ‘efficient fighting machines’ emerged, and it would take even longer before the correct tactics for their employment were developed. Initially, so serious were the problems both sides were having in engaging enemy planes that aircrews stopped bothering to carry defensive armament. Even unarmed, the early RFC reconnaissance planes sometimes struggled to make their way back to their bases against the prevailing westerly winds. Any unnecessary weight could reduce their progress to a crawl, increasing the time they were exposed to pot shots from troops below. Well into 1915, most RFC reconnaissance planes were still flying unarmed. It was hardly surprising crews took to waving at their enemy rather than firing at them whenever their paths crossed.

Specialist fighters were being developed. Vickers and the Factory were working on their two-seater pushers. Delays were put down to technical problems with the engines, but the real issue was that tried and trusted engines were not powerful enough to push the un-aerodynamic pusher and its crew of two fast enough. Turning to more powerful but less well-developed and reliable engines inevitably led to problems. The Vickers Gunbus eventually managed just 70 mph, which was enough to intercept a Zeppelin, but was far too slow to catch an aeroplane. Nevertheless, deliveries to the Western Front began in February 1915. The plane created a place for itself in aviation history by equipping the first specialist fighter squadron, No. 11 Squadron, which arrived in France in July 1915 equipped entirely with the Gunbus, although in practice it was used as a multi-purpose squadron like any other. The appearance of the plane did not go unnoticed by German pilots, and all future RFC pushers would be known to the enemy as ‘Vickers’. Quite sensibly, German pilots tended to give the armed but lumbering pusher a wide berth. It was a source of frustration to RFC aircrews that German pilots would not stand their ground and fight, and this certainly gave the RFC an illusion of superiority, but it was more a psychological than a meaningful superiority. Since the Gunbus lacked the speed to give chase, it posed very little real danger to German pilots.

The F.E.2 had the same problem. The outbreak of war induced the Directorate to order a batch of twelve of the latest version, the F.E.2a, with a 100-hp Green engine, even though the prototype had yet to fly. When it did get into the air in January 1915, it struggled to reach 6,000 feet and managed just 75 mph. A few were sent to the front, but further deliveries were held back until a more powerful 120-hp Beardmore engine was available. Even with this engine, it barely managed 80 mph—an improvement on the Gunbus, but still considered far too slow by the pilots who flew them. Despite this, large numbers were ordered. The production version, the F.E.2b, had a simplified structure to make it easier for companies with no previous experience of building aircraft to be brought into the production programme, but redesigning the plane and setting up production lines took time, and the first F.E.2b did not arrive in France until early 1916.

While the designers back home worked on their two-seater pushers, the pilots at the front were coming to the conclusion it was pointless persevering with the pusher or two-seater as a fighter if the extra aerodynamic drag and weight meant the plane could never be fast enough to catch up with the planes it was supposed to shoot down. The fastest planes available to the RFC were the high-speed, single-seater reconnaissance scouts. There were only a handful—a few Tabloids and Martinsyde S1s, a couple of requisitioned Bristol Scouts, and the S.E.2 prototype. Both the Martinsyde and Bristol scouts were in production, but there was little demand for them in France as reconnaissance planes. In the static siege warfare on the Western Front, there was not much need for long-range strategic reconnaissance, and two-seaters were better for tactical reconnaissance. The single-seater scouts were a handful to fly and those in France tended not to be used much.

The one quality they did have was speed, and pilots interested in taking on the enemy were soon eying them up as an alternative to the two-seater pushers. Using the scout for air combat solved the speed problem, but it meant the gun had to be mounted so the pilot could fly with one hand and aim and fire with the other. Flying and aiming a gun at the same time was not easy, and several pilots saw the advantage of fixing the gun and manoeuvring the plane to aim. Initially, guns were fixed to the side of the fuselage and angled to miss the propeller, but it was not easy to aim in one direction and fly in another. Nor were there enough machine guns, and rifles were often used instead. It was hardly surprising there were few successes, but pilots believed that a single-seater with just a rifle fixed at an angle was better than struggling into the air with a specialist gunner.

Naval pilots were coming to the same conclusions. Some had gone one step further and fixed a machine gun to fire through the propeller arc with tape on the propeller to provide extra protection. The advantages of firing straight ahead were so great that pilots were willing to risk shooting off their own propeller. However, neither naval nor military commanders seemed impressed by fixed-gun single-seaters. Longmore, commanding RNAS squadrons at Dunkirk, told his RFC colleagues that there was a debate among his pilots about the relative advantage of ‘fast handy’ single-seaters and planes ‘with one or more gunners’. However, Longmore emphasised the difficulty lone pilots had aiming their weapons and how he had been impressed by the German ‘double fuselage tractors that can fire in all directions’ which his pilots were encountering in combat. He felt this was the sort of plane more likely to bring success. RFC commanders tended to agree. When Strange was passing through RFC HQ in St Omer and was asked which planes he considered best for the fighting role, he had no hesitation in choosing the single-seater Bristol Scout. His response, however, did not impress his inquisitors and he was asked to choose between the Vickers Gunbus and the F.E.2.

The pilots who had to do the fighting might be convinced the single-seater was the way forward, but there were only a few suitable planes to experiment with and few opportunities to prove the point. Nor had the enthusiasm of the pilots been rewarded with any significant success. There was no evidence the single-seater tractor was better than the two-seater pusher.

In the absence of any substantial numbers of single-seater tractor scouts or two-seater pushers, any plane capable of carrying a gun continued to be used for air combat, but at least the arrival of more powerful two-seaters like the B.E.2c and French Morane-Saulnier Parasol meant carrying a machine gun was less of a handicap. An assault on Hill 60 in the Ypres salient in April 1915 saw the first British systematic deployment of fighters and the first organised attempt to establish air superiority in a defined space. No. 1 Squadron’s mixed bag of Parasols, B.E.8s and Avro two-seaters were given the task of denying German reconnaissance planes access to that sector of the front by flying continuous patrols along and beyond the front line. Air fighting was becoming a regular element of operations and the development of an efficient fighting plane more urgent.

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