Air-Combat in the Ludendorff Offensives

The German Flying Corps had failed to achieve the air superiority that was necessary to the success of their offensives of March and April 1918. Had the Jagdgeschwader been able to avail themselves, at the start of the Ludendorff Offensives, of the new combat aircraft that were at last beginning to reach the front-line units in late April, it might have been a different story.

The first of the new types was the Fokker D.VII, which had its origins late in 1917. At that time the German Flying Corps was beginning to lose the ascendancy it had enjoyed for nearly three years, as Allied air units became equipped with more modern aircraft such as the SPAD, SE5 and Camel. The German High Command considered the situation to be so serious that it ordered German aircraft manufacturers to develop new fighter types without delay. The various fighters would take part in a competitive fly-off at Johannisthal, and the winning firm would be awarded large production contracts for its design.

Anthony Fokker’s contender, the D.VII fighter biplane, was completed in November 1917 in something of a hurry, as Fokker later described.

‘The competition date arrived several days sooner than I found desirable. I was working day and night on the plane, but in order to be represented at all I had hurriedly to finish off a model considerably short of what I had in mind. It was a biplane and, in deference to conservatism, the wings were connected near the tips by single ‘N’ struts. The fuselage section I left square to facilitate manufacture. I retained the tiny aerofoil surface (which had characterized the D.VI and other Fokker scouts) which streamlined the landing gear axle, and the whole plane was designed around the coveted 160 hp Mercedes six-cylinder motor, for it was part of the competition rules that every entrant should use this engine – the only one available in quantity! With only just enough time to make a sketchy test hop at Schwerin to determine whether my plane would fly at all, we loaded it on a truck and raced to Johannisthal.’

Even the hasty trial had shown that the aircraft had an excellent all-round performance, but it was very sensitive, with tricky habits, and a tendency to spin on the slightest provocation. It was much too responsive on the controls, particularly in turns. The rules of the competition permitted manufacturers to demonstrate their entries either personally or with an official test pilot, and Fokker took advantage of this on the first few days to make a thorough investigation of the aircraft’s faults. Subsequently, all manufacturers were to be barred from Johannisthal and the aircraft turned over to operational pilots for a comparison of their fighting qualities. The judges were the cream of Germany’s fighter pilots.

Fokker, as it turned out, was the only manufacturer to fly his own aircraft.

‘I flew each day, learning as much about the ship as possible, and showing by direct comparison that it would out-perform any other plane in the sky. Keeping it well in hand, watching its tricks, I played with the other pilots, diving on them, circling them, swooping in under their tails, looping around them, driving their planes down to earth and in general enjoying myself to the utmost while displaying my ship to best advantage. The manoeuvrability of my plane in short, sharp turns at low altitudes was particularly impressive. At the same time I began to realize that if one of the operational pilots took the ship up in its present form and endeavoured to emulate my performance, he would probably kill himself. Finally, I concluded that the fuselage lacked sufficient rear side area, had too much front side area, and that the fin and rudder were too small. Something had to be done for, on Monday, the planes were to be turned over to the operational pilots.

‘That Saturday I telephoned Schwerin for two of my best welders to come at once. As soon as night fell we locked ourselves in the dim hangar to reconstruct the ship. In its cavernous depths we laboured like gnomes under the violet glare of acetylene torches, cutting through the fuselage to weld in another bay of two feet, and enlarging the fin in equal ratio. It was a long, exhausting job all through the night and lasting until Sunday noon. In the end the fabric was patched so smoothly that nothing appeared to have been done to the ship. Weary though I was, I had yet to take my ship up once more to determine whether the alterations had remedied its faults. In the main they had. The fighter was no longer dangerous to its pilot, though it still swung around corners at a fast clip. Properly employed, this characteristic was an asset. The spinning tendency had disappeared . . . in the hands of an experienced pilot, aware of its weakness, that sensitivity of control became its strength.

‘With a lighter heart I landed, and next day my plane was turned over to the Contest Committee. Before leaving the field for good, however, I sauntered over to a group of pilots who were waiting to test the various planes. I pulled Oberleutnant Bruno Loerzer, who commanded a front-line Jagdstaffel, on one side. ‘You’ll notice a special feature of my ship, Herr Leutnant,’ I said, ‘its quickness in turns. Let the others in on it so that they can show it off to best advantage.’ Then I left, having put them on their guard without their realizing it, ostensibly to seek some much-needed sleep.

‘With that little tip, they demonstrated the plane as well or better than I could have done myself. At altitude the plane’s performance was particularly good because of the thick wing, and this factor was highly important.’

Fokker secretly took off from the other side of the airfield on an old experimental aircraft which he had planted there earlier and climbed to 15,000 feet to watch the fly-off.

‘I was delighted with the manner in which the Fokker was showing up the others. None of my chief competitors, the Rumpler, the LFG, the Albatros or the Pfalz was in the running. The pilots, following Loerzer’s tip-off, flew my ship in much the same way as I had done from the first day, playing with the other planes and out-manoeuvring them all the way down from 15,000 to 1,000 feet, displaying in every way the unmistakable superiority of the Fokker. The Rumpler was much faster and had a nice climb but suffered a rather high wing loading. It was my most dangerous competitor. The arrangement of the radiators on the fuselage sides, however, disturbed the airflow around the control surfaces so that it handled badly at awkward moments. Otherwise it was a clean ship and gave a good account of itself.’

By the fourth day of the fly-off it was clear that the Fokker was by far the best all-round design, and superior to the other prototypes in mock combat. At high altitude the Rumpler slipped away in turns, losing height rapidly while the Fokker stayed firmly under control; the Albatros DVI was almost a duplicate of the earlier DV and showed no improvement, the Pfalz showed dangerous structural weaknesses, the Roland-designed LFG had hardly any visibility from the cockpit, and the AEG contender was a hopeless failure on all counts.

Nevertheless, Fokker was staggered when Captain Falkenhein, adjutant to the German Flying Corps C-in-C, General von Hoeppner, asked him to name a price for building four hundred aircraft. Up to that time, the largest order Fokker had ever received for a fighter aircraft had been for sixty DRI triplanes. He told the officer that the total cost would be ten million marks. Falkenhein agreed without hesitation, and told Fokker that the Albatros factory was also to build the new aircraft on a royalty basis.

‘Momentarily I was stunned,’ Fokker admitted. ‘Although all efforts had been directed towards staging a comeback, the thoroughness of it rather swept me off my feet. After nearly a year as the front-line favourite, the Albatros was scrapped and the Army was forcing the Albatros Werke to build my plane on a five per cent royalty basis. Soon the so-called Hindenburg Programme was to come into effect, calling for an enormous expansion of the air arm, and the AEG factory was also to be ordered to build my D.VII.’

Despite all the priority given to the production of the D.VII, it took time to set up the necessary machinery and it was not until the last days of April 1918 that the first examples were delivered to Jagdgeschwader 1, which was now commanded by Captain Wilhelm Reinhard. The new aircraft cost Reinhard his life, for he was accidentally killed while flying one a few days later. So JG 1 received its third and last commanding officer, a leader of proven worth who had twenty victories to his credit and who wore the Pour le Mérite: Lieutenant Hermann Goering.

Other German pilots, however, believed that the finest fighter at the front in the summer of 1918 came from a different stable. This was the Siemens-Schuckert D.III, a stubby, compact little biplane of wooden construction powered by a 160 hp Siemens-Halske rotary engine. During flight trials in October 1917, the prototype D.III had reached a level speed of 112 mph and climbed to 19,600 feet in less than twenty minutes, a performance good enough for it to be ordered into production. At the same time, the IDFLIEG – Inspektion der Fliegertruppen – placed orders for two further developments, the D.IV and D.V.

The first batch of thirty SSW D.III fighters were delivered for operational trials in January 1918, and in February the IDFLIEG ordered thirty more aircraft. Beginning in late April, forty-one examples were sent to the Western Front; most of them went to Jagdgeschwader 2, which equipped its Jasta 15 with the type. The pilots were delighted with the new aircraft, and a typical verdict on the SSW D.III was that it was highly sensitive on the controls, possessed excellent flying qualities and climbed like a rocket.

One German ace who firmly advocated the SSW D.III was Captain Rudolf Berthold, a talented pilot who had begun his combat career with Fliegerabteilung 23 in 1916, scoring his first victories while flying a Fokker Monoplane. He survived a series of close shaves – including a tricky forced landing after a fight with three BE2Cs and a crash while testing a Pfalz Scout – and in October 1916, while commanding Jasta 14, he scored his tenth victory and was awarded the Pour le Mérite. In August 1917 he assumed command of Jasta 18, and in one month he destroyed fourteen RFC aircraft before being shot down himself and severely wounded in the right arm.

Returning to action in the spring of 1918, he took command of Jagdgeschwader 2, comprising Jastas 12, 13,15 and 19. When JG 2 received the Fokker D.VII, he had his aircraft specially modified so that he could fly and fight with his one good hand and the limited use of the other. He was in constant pain from his injury and his determination was greatly admired by his fellow pilots, who nicknamed him the ‘Iron Knight’. His SSW D.III, which he tested in action during the first weeks of May 1918, was distinctively painted with a red and blue engine cowling and a flaming sword insignia.

Berthold’s report on the aircraft, which he submitted to the IDFLIEG on 23 May, read:

‘Basically the new Siemens-Halske Sh.III engine is sound and the pilots have faith in it. One particular advantage is that engine power remains constant even at high altitude. After rectifying the defects reported to the Commanding General of the Air Service by Jagdgeschwader 2 on 17 April 1918, and particularly after reducing the control forces and the excessive left-hand torque suffered by the aircraft, the SSW D.III can be considered a perfectly acceptable front-line machine, but the aircraft cannot be used at the present time as, after seven to ten hours’ running of the Sh.III engine the pistons seize, the crowns being torn off and the pieces dropping into the crankcase.’

Berthold went on to list the possible causes of this major defect, including inadequate engine cooling, inferior castor oil substitute and weakness in the alloy used for the pistons, and concluded: ‘It is urgently required that this fighter be made available again for front-line use as quickly as possible, for after the elimination of its present faults it is likely to become one of our most successful fighter aircraft.’

As a result of Berthold’s report, the thirty-five SSW D.IIIs were withdrawn from front-line service at the end of May and returned to the Siemens-Schuckert factory for airframe and engine modifications. It was to be two months before they returned to operational service, and then they were used mainly for home defence duties. Jasta 15 reverted to the Fokker D.VII, and it was while flying one of these, on 10 August 1918, that Rudolf Berthold scored his last two victories, bringing his final tally to forty-four. Soon afterwards, in a fight with Sopwith Camels, he was shot down and suffered yet more injuries. He survived them only to be murdered by German Communists in Harburg on 15 December 1919.

The French were among the first to encounter the new Fokker D.VII. On 6 May 1918, sixteen SPADs of Lieutenant Jean Chaput’s SPA 57, operating in support of the 8th French Army on the Oise, encountered an equal number of D.VIIs. This time the French came out on top, claiming five Fokkers in a dogfight that left the pilots utterly exhausted. One by one they straggled back to base, but one pilot was missing. Troops in the French front line saw a SPAD spiral down and make a heavy landing in no-man’s land. They rushed to drag the pilot from the wreck, but there was nothing they could do. Jean Chaput had three bullets in him, and he was dead. He had sixteen victories.

Three days later, Chaput’s death was avenged by René Fonck, who equalled the record of RAF pilots John Trollope and Henry Woollett by shooting down six aircraft in a single day, three of them in the space of a minute. These were all two-seaters, which he caught flying in formation over Grivesnes. The first one went down before his guns at 4.05 pm, the next one ten seconds later, and the third after a forty-second running battle. He landed to refuel and have something to eat; then, on a second patrol, he sighted a formation of Pfalz Scouts and engaged them at 6.40, shooting down the first one almost immediately. He destroyed a second at 6.45, and another ten seconds later. The destruction of all six aircraft had cost him just fifty-two rounds of ammunition.

If May 1918 was René Fonck’s month, the same was certainly true for Mick Mannock, whose No 74 Squadron was everywhere in the thick of the fighting. A glimpse at the official record for the month tells its own tale.

‘May 6th. Captain E. Mannock . . . engaged one EA triplane and forced it into a spin. He followed the EA down, firing short bursts and the EA finally turned over on its back and crashed.

‘May 12th. Captain E. Mannock, 74 Sqn, with his patrol, encountered a formation of eight EA scouts; he attacked the rear machine at close range and at right angles, and the EA side-slipped underneath him and collided with another enemy scout, both enemy machines falling to pieces in the air. Capt Mannock then engaged another EA scout from behind and fired a long burst into it from both guns; the EA went down vertically and was seen to dive into the ground.

‘May 16th. Capt E. Mannock, 74 Sqn, fired about 40 rounds at one EA scout which went into a vertical dive and broke to pieces in the air.

‘May 17th. Capt E. Mannock . . . attacked the rear machine of a formation of EA scouts and fired a long burst from both guns into it, and the EA spun down out of control. Capt Mannock was then attacked by another EA and forced to spin away, but 210 Squadron confirm the first EA attacked by Capt Mannock as having crashed in flames. Later in the day Capt Mannock observed an EA two-seater crossing the line near Ypres. He climbed north and then east and approached the EA at which he fired approximately 200 rounds at close range during a fight which lasted about one minute, the EA going down alternately diving and spinning. At about 4,000 feet the EA burst into flames and was seen to crash and to burn itself out on the ground.

‘May 18th. Capt E. Mannock engaged an enemy two-seater at right-angles, firing a burst of 40 rounds into it. The EA went down in a vertical dive and crashed near Steenwerck, and burst into flames on hitting the ground.

‘May 21st. A patrol of 74 Squadron encountered six Pfalz Scouts, upon whom they dived, shooting down five of them – of which Major K. L. Caldwell destroyed one, Captain E. Mannock three, and Captain W. E. Young one. Captain Mannock also destroyed another EA earlier in the day.’

Mannock’s young pilots were justifiably proud of their leader’s prowess in action. One of them, Lieutenant Ira ‘Taffy’ Jones, who himself was to destroy forty enemy aircraft before the war’s end, noted in his diary on 25 May:

‘The CO saved Giles’ skin today. Giles very carelessly allowed a black Albatros to pounce on him while he was concentrating on the destruction of a silver-grey two-seater. Giles has had his leg pulled unmercifully; we declare he was decoyed. Pilots hate admitting that they have been taken in as a sucker!

‘Clements tells me that Mick saved his life tonight, too. Mick and Clements went up for a bit of fun after tea. They each got what they wanted . . . Clements spotted a large formation of Huns obviously making a beeline for them. Clements put on full throttle . . . to catch up to Mick, who as usual was wasting no time in getting at his enemy. Mick had seen the Hun formation all the time . . . he turned west quickly and dived, the Huns following and firing. Mick saved Clements by losing height directly beneath them and so drawing them on to him, while Clements got clear. Clements says it was a rotten sight to see one SE being attacked by such a bunch, and that had it been anyone except Mick, he would have been anxious about his safety. (We all believe that no Hun will ever shoot down Mick.) One Pfalz followed him very closely, and suddenly Mick went down out of control; on his back – spinning – and doing everything imaginable from 8,000 to 4,000 feet. At 5,000 feet the Hun, completely fooled, flattened out to watch the crash. Mick then decided he had had enough, and flattened out too and made for our lines – diving hard.’

Four days later, on 29 May, Jones wrote:

‘Mick took Clements and me up at 7.00 pm . . . Mick spotted about a dozen Huns coming from the direction of Roubaix; we were then over Lille. As we had not too much time for a fight, having already been up for over an hour, he decided to go straight at them, as we had a slight advantage of height. The Huns, who were Albatros Scouts, were of the stout variety, and they accepted our challenge. Both Mick and the Hun leader opened fire at one another as they approached from about 300 yards’ range, but nothing happened. This burst of fire was the signal for a glorious dogfight – as fine and as frightening a dogfight as I’ve ever been in. Friend and foe fired at and whistled past one another at a tornado pace . . . I have never been so frightened in my life. Of late I have been able to keep very cool during the actual fight, but tonight I became so flustered that occasionally I fired at my own pals in an effort not to miss a chance – thank God, my shooting was erratic. How terrible it would have been if I had, say, shot Mick down! The thought gives me the very creeps . . . Mick sent two slate-blue Albatros down out of control, and Clements crashed his first Hun. He is very bucked about it. It is wonderful how cheered a pilot becomes after he shoots down his first machine – his morale increases by at least a hundred per cent. This is why Mick gives Huns away – to raise the morale of the beginner.’

Taffy Jones himself destroyed his first enemy aircraft on 8 May and ran up a steady score during the remainder of the month. He drove an Albatros down out of control the next day, and on the 17th, with his patrol, attacked ten Pfalz Scouts. During the battle he saw a two-seater slightly in front and just below him, and opened up with both guns. He saw hits on the engine and both cockpits and the enemy went down vertically, trailing smoke and eventually bursting into flames, to crash near Estaires. On the following day he attacked another two-seater, which was being engaged by anti-aircraft fire at the time, and fired 250 rounds into it from underneath its tail. There was an explosion and the enemy aircraft caught fire and crashed. More anti-aircraft bursts led him to another two-seater over Hazebrouck; he attacked this aircraft too from below but ran into heavy defensive fire from its observer, who was shooting through a hole in the fuselage floor. Jones described what happened then:

‘Very suddenly he tilted his machine very steeply, and it seemed as if a black object had been deliberately thrown at me. I thought at first it was the observer’s gun, so I slithered quickly to the other side and as I did so, looked for the object. To my amazement, I saw the body of the observer, falling with arms outstretched and legs wide apart, and going down in a series of tumbling circles. It was a horrifying sight. He fell in the trenches near Meteren.’

Jones turned back to engage the two-seater, which was heading east at high speed, but a shortage of ammunition and a gun jam compelled him to break off the action and the enemy got away. A Pfalz Scout which he engaged on 22 May was not so lucky; its wings broke off and the fuselage went down like a bomb to explode on impact.

Another leading pilot who added to his score during the hectic air fighting of May 1918 was Captain A. W. Beauchamp-Proctor of No 84 Squadron (SE5as), a South African who was to end the war as the fifth-ranking RAF ace with fifty-four victories. On 10 May Beauchamp-Proctor stalked a two-seater which he had sighted climbing for altitude before crossing the British lines and fired fifty rounds into it, killing the observer. He then closed right in and opened fire again, at which the two-seater went into a vertical dive. The RAF pilot watched it fall through 4,000 feet until he lost it in the haze, but it was confirmed as having crashed by another 84 Squadron pilot.

Five days later, Beauchamp-Proctor took off from No 84 Squadron’s airfield at Bertangles in the darkness before dawn to intercept enemy bombers that had been attacking Amiens. He failed to find them, so flew east in the hope of catching them over their airfield as they returned from the bombing mission. Landing flares led him to the enemy aerodrome; he throttled back and glided down to 3,000 feet, then circled a few miles west of the enemy field to await events. A few minutes later a twin-engined aircraft – probably a Gotha – flew just over him and he turned to intercept, but its gunner was on the alert and opened up. Proctor fired a long burst and the enemy gunner fell silent. Proctor’s own gun then jammed, and by the time he had cleared the stoppage the enemy aircraft was almost over the airfield. He opened fire again and saw the enemy machine shoot off a red flare, which was answered from the ground. The next instant all hell broke loose and Proctor found himself flying through a storm of heavy machine-gun fire and tracer shells. He was forced to break off the combat at 2,000 feet, having driven the enemy aircraft some distance away from its aerodrome. He later reported that it was in a dive when he last saw it, and although it was still probably under control it had almost certainly suffered heavy damage.

It was the Canadian, Captain D. M. MacLaren of No 46 Squadron (Sopwith Camel), who was to share joint fifth place with Beauchamp-Proctor at the end of hostilities. MacLaren’s first success in May came on the 3rd, when he fired 75 rounds into a two-seater from a range of fifty yards and sent it down in flames. Almost immediately afterwards he shared in the destruction of a second two-seater with another 46 Squadron pilot, 2nd Lieutenant V. M. Yeates.

On 6 May MacLaren, together with Yeates and three other 46 Squadron pilots, harried another two-seater to destruction, and in that same week MacLaren drove two more enemy machines down out of control, but was unable to confirm them as positive victories. A few days later he shared another with Lieutenant C. R. Chapman, and on 20 May he shot down two enemy observation balloons in flames.

Major Roderic Dallas of No 40 Squadron entered May’s air combats in determined fashion by shooting down a Pfalz Scout on the morning of the 2nd. Later in the day, he took his SE5 to the enemy airfield at La Brayelle and attacked it at low level, strafing the hangars. Ignoring desultory fire from the ground, he turned and flew back over the aerodrome to drop a parcel. In it was a pair of army boots and an accompanying message which read: ‘If you won’t come up here and fight, herewith one pair of boots for work on the ground. Pilots – for the use of.’ Circling in the haze, he waited until a party of Germans had gathered to examine the parcel and then made another low-level run, firing 100 rounds of ammunition and dropping two Cooper bombs on their heads. To complete his day’s work, he caught an Albatros Scout on his way home and sent it down in flames.

Dallas destroyed two more enemy aircraft in mid-May, and another on the 27th. It was his thirty-ninth and last victory, although some sources put his score at fifty-one. His SE5, always in the thick of the fighting, was well known to the enemy; instead of the drab khaki upper surfaces and cream underside that was the standard British colour scheme, he had it painted in a distinctive green and brown pattern resembling that which the RAF was to adopt many years later.

On 1 June 1918 Dallas set out on another of his lone patrols, intending to lurk up-sun over the front line and trap an unsuspecting enemy observation aircraft. He never returned. Later, his wrecked aircraft was found near the village of Lieven. A German account later told the story of Dallas’s last minutes. It appeared that he had dived down to attack a solitary Fokker Triplane, unaware that two more were cruising several thousand feet higher up, waiting for just this moment. They pounced on him and the SE went down, its pilot riddled with a score of bullets.

Captain R. A. Little of No 203 Squadron also scored his last victory in May. On the 22nd, having been forced to leave his patrol because of oil pressure trouble, he was on his way home when he encountered an Albatros CV two-seater. He attacked it at close range and sent it down at St Leger, watching it crash into a railway cutting.

The next day, the Australian pilot was shot down and killed in the course of an offensive patrol. He had forty-seven victories to his credit.

Other leading RAF scorers in May were Major James Gilmour of No 65 Squadron (Sopwith Camel) and Lieutenant A. C. Atkey of No 22 Squadron (Bristol Fighter). Gilmour destroyed a pair of two-seaters on 2 May, and on the 9th he shot down another and damaged a fourth. On the next day he and his patrol caught a lone Albatros Scout and shared in sending it down, and on 18 May he led his patrol into an attack on twelve enemy fighters, causing one to break up with his first burst of fire. Soon afterwards he dived on a two-seater and fired a long burst into it; it turned away eastwards and went into a long dive, then crashed and burst into flames on the ground.

Atkey, who had previously flown DH4s with No 18 Squadron and who had been awarded an MC in April, was posted to No 22 Squadron at the end of the month and teamed up with Lieutenant C. G. Gass as his observer. A formidable team they proved to be, as an air battle of 7 May showed. That morning, Atkey and Gass were in one of a pair of Bristol Fighters patrolling in showery weather when they ran into a formation of seven Albatros and Pfalz Scouts in the vicinity of Henin-Liétard. The two Bristols – the second aircraft was crewed by Lieutenants J. E. Gurdon and A. J. H. Thornton – immediately went into the attack and soon found themselves in the middle of a fierce fight, for the original enemy formation was quickly reinforced by two others which brought the number of enemy aircraft involved to twenty. Of all battles, this one proved conclusively that the Bristol Fighter, in expert hands, could more than hold its own against a far superior enemy force. During a dogfight that lasted half an hour, Atkey and Gass shot down two enemy aircraft in flames and saw three more crash, while Gurdon and Thornton disposed of three more, two of them in flames. The remainder did not stay to fight.

Two days later, the same team of Atkey and Gass destroyed another enemy scout, and on a second patrol that day they carried out a single-handed attack on a formation of eight enemy machines, Atkey firing fifty rounds into one at close range. Flames burst from the fuselage behind the pilot’s seat and it went down to crash. Later in the week they drove three more enemy aircraft down out of control – which, in the parlance of the First World War, meant that they were probably destroyed – and on 19 May they shot down a two-seater near Douai. During the next few days they drove four more Germans down out of control, and rounded off the month with a spirited engagement on the 25th. The official record tersely tells the story:

‘A patrol of 22 Squadron, led by Captain A. C. Atkey and 2nd Lt C. G. Gass, while escorting DH4s of 18 Sqn, encountered a large formation of about 40 EA. A fierce fight ensued, in the course of which so many EA were seen spinning and diving away that it was impossible to tell whether they were out of control or not. At the conclusion of the fight four EA were seen crashed on the ground, and in addition, one Albatros Scout, attacked by Lt S. F. H. Thompson and Sgt R. M. Fletcher, was seen to go down in flames.’

During May, the German Flying Corps did what it ought to have done during the crucial weeks of March and April: it launched a determined bombing campaign with the object of disrupting the British lines of communication, which were now heavily congested as a result of the earlier retreats. On the night of 19/20 May, fifteen Gothas attacked a vital railway bridge at Etaples over the Canche Estuary. They failed to hit the target, but their bombs fell on a nearby military hospital, killing 182 patients and injuring 643. The crew of one of the bombers, which had to make a forced landing after being hit by anti-aircraft fire, expressed incredulity that the British authorities had placed a hospital so close to a vital military objective, maintaining that they had no prior knowledge of the hospital’s whereabouts. There is no reason to doubt their claim. On the last night of the month the German bombers had better success against their assigned target, destroying one span of the bridge.

The bombers’ real success, however, was against the British ammunition and supply dumps. On 19/20 May, in conjunction with the Etaples raid, Gothas dropped some 500 bombs on No 12 Ordnance Depot at Blarges, which contained 27,000 tons of explosive. In all, 6,000 tons were destroyed. One dump containing mortar bombs received a direct hit and simply vanished, leaving a crater fifty yards wide and ten deep. On the next night the bombers attacked No 20 Ordnance Depot at Seigneville, wiping out 5,600 tons of ammunition including 69 million small-arms rounds. Now the Allied line in the north was stabilizing, these losses were severe, though not critical. Had they occurred a few weeks earlier, with the field commanders crying out for supplies of ammunition and equipment to sustain their battered and retreating armies, they would almost certainly have been disastrous.

Some British divisions, which had suffered particularly severe losses in the spring fighting, had been sent south to rest and recuperate on the Aisne. They were accompanied by a single RAF squadron, No 52, with RE8s. On 22 May the squadron’s crews reported large clouds of dust swirling over the roads in the German rear areas, a sure sign of large-scale troop movement. They reported the same phenomenon the next day, and the day after that. The British commander in the area brought the RAF reports to the notice of the French general commanding the 6th Army, under whose orders he was serving, but the general took no notice.

Soon after midnight on 27 May, one of the heaviest bombardments of the war thundered down on the luckless British divisions. Two were virtually wiped out and a third suffered heavy losses. The fourth British division, in reserve, remained intact and was thrown into the battle, together with French reserves. By the time the German advance was halted it had penetrated the Allied front to a depth of twelve miles and had reached the Marne. The disaster prompted a stern reminder from the RAF C-in-C, Major-General Salmond, who ordered that in future every likely approach route was to be reconnoitred twice nightly and again just before dawn, the pilots flying at low level. ‘The responsibility that the British Army is not surprised,’ said Salmond, ‘is on the Royal Air Force.’

Never again, in this war, would British troops in the field suffer through lack of adequate air reconnaissance; and never again would an Allied field commander fail to act upon the information supplied by the crews of the observation aircraft who daily risked their lives over enemy territory.

Rebuilt Luftwaffe!? Part I


The spectacular Allied failure to seize the bridges and cross the Rhine River at Arnhem in September had given the Luftwaffe a breathing spell to recover from the aerial fiascos of the previous nine months. Finally, Hitler had given fighter production precedence over bomber types; he could do little else after watching the vast armada of Allied planes pulverize the Reich throughout 1944. Then too, there was little in the way of fuel to keep any of the petrol-guzzling German bombers aloft. Albert Speer warned the German leader, however, that if this desecration continued much longer, there would be no way of continuing the war. In spite of increased production from other armament manufacture, the production of oil plummeted. By greatly expanding synthetic fuels production, German petrol stocks had reached an apex of some 574,000 tons by April of 1944. But then the Allied bombing campaign against German oil production began in earnest. Fuel stocks plummeted. By late June, production was down by 90%; only 52,000 tons were produced that month as opposed to 195,000 in May. With the refineries under a withering assault, the free fall continued. Only 35,000 tons dribbled out in July and barely 16,000 in August. Speer gave Hitler an honest appraisal:

“The enemy has struck us at one of our weakest points. If they persist at it this time, we will soon no longer have any fuel production worth mentioning. Our hope is that the other side has an air force general staff as scatter-brained as ours!”

Although his generals told him that things could be patched up, Hitler was too perceptive to believe the sycophants in his headquarters. The German leader was always calling for more tanks and planes from the German factories. Speer pointedly challenged him: what good would be these planes and tanks if there was no fuel for them? Hitler knew Speer was right. The German leader grudgingly approved the plan to re-build the fighter forces at the cost of the offensive air arm that summer. But was all this too late?

Under Hitler’s direction, Speer forcefully addressed the fuel problem. The hydro-generation plants were repaired so that production could resume. A horde of army engineers were enlisted to harden the refineries. The engineers and repair crews were supervised by Himmler’s SS, so that their “enthusiasm” would not flag. Thousands of the impressed laborers died. Where possible, facilities were moved underground. For those above, concrete ramparts were erected; and a thicket of heavy flak guns ringed the facilities. Along with smoke generators, this made bomb runs not only uncertain, but exceedingly deadly. The vital German facilities took on the air of fortresses; they were even called that Hydriesfestungen. The 14th Flakdivision, in charge of the defense of the important oil plants in the Leipzig area, possessed 374 heavy flak guns at the beginning of May, 1944. Over the following months, the dynamic Genmaj. Adolf Gerlach increased their strength six-fold and instituted effective fire control schemes to make future Allied blows nearly suicidal. On July 28th, Speer called for dramatic increase in the fighters allocated to defend German industry. One move designed to accommodate his desire was to post JG 400, flying the rocket-powered, but short-ranged, Me-163 Komet, at Brandis along the approach path to the oil facilities. On August 24, eight of these fast rocket planes struck a surprised force of 185 B-17s moving to attack the refinery at Merseburg. Four B-17s were shot down with only superficial damage suffered by two of the Komets. Finally, the ultimate oil protection strategy was entrusted to Edmund Geilenberg, Speer’s energetic head of the munitions organization. He proposed to dig in 41 small dispersed hydrogeneration plants in underground production facilities around Central Germany.

In spite of the far-reaching measures, oil production continued to flag. The experience of the sprawling synthetic oil plant at Leuna is illustrative. Between May 12th and September 28th, the facility was struck no less than twelve times by over 2,400 medium and heavy bombers. Although production resumed briefly with chaotic repairs during the summer, Leuna was bombed so often that at the end of the month repair work was again disrupted before operation could resume. Meanwhile, German fuel production had dropped to a war-relative drip: a mere 7,000 tons for September. The effects were not immediate the Luftwaffe had accumulated a fuel reserve of over half a million tons before the disasters of summer but soon the fat would be gone. With the total stocks down to only 180,000 tons at the end of September the promise of draconian conservation measures loomed. Gone would be profligate use by the Luftwaffe day-bombers. Even legitimate uses like reconnaissance and training operations would have to be sharply curtailed. Worst of all, the Luftwaffe, increasingly viewed as impotent, would be competing with Hitler’s panzers for the trickle of fuel left.

Fortunately for the Germans, there were so many pulls on the Allied air effort that it did not remain solely concentrated on oil. In the late summer the U.S. strategic air force was committed to the destruction of the rail system in France to hinder the ability of the Germans to respond to the invasion. Later, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, the Deputy Supreme Commander at SHAEF, pushed for a greater portion of the strategic bombing effort to be devoted to wrecking the rail and water transport system in Germany on the basis of a controversial study by Professor Zuckerman. Zuckerman had become convinced from an analysis of the effect of bombing on the Italian campaign that destruction of enemy rail centers and rail marshalling yards was the way to speed the end of the war. Eventually, this plan would be translated into Operation Clarion an all-out effort to wreck German rail capability in 1945. But an even larger factor was Air Marshal Harris’ refusal to be drawn away from his area bombing of German cities to attack oil targets. Zuckerman, Tedder and Harris were frequently at odds with Spaatz who was the leading proponent of the oil campaign. But even Spaatz, frustrated with the refusal of Nazi Germany to roll over dead from his precision bombing, was now leaning toward using the heavy bombers to support the armies in massive carpet bombing attacks. A final German grace came from the poor flying weather. With the onset of autumn and the socked-in skies over Western Europe, constant bombing of the German oil facilities became impossible.

Thus, through a combination of circumstances the Germans gained a breathing spell during the summer in which to reorganize. Speer would later write that “Had they continued the attacks of March and April with the same energy, we would quickly have been at our last gasp.” But Speer shrewdly used his breathing room to repair the faltering industry. Synthetic fuel stocks wavered and then rose. Some 19,000 tons were produced in October, and 39,000 in November. This was still not nearly enough, but at least the likelihood of complete collapse was averted. Obviously, the fuel famine was not going to ever allow either the army or Luftwaffe to enjoy the surpluses of a year before. Even with spartan fuel conservation measures, the Luftwaffe would have to fight a poor man’s war. Planes were horse-drawn to their take-off point; personal travel in motor vehicles was forbidden, and training flights were greatly abbreviated. Fuel depots were assiduously dispersed to prevent major losses to Allied air attacks. The gas-guzzling Luftwaffe bombers were relegated to deep mothball status. The list went on. But if Hitler was to have fuel for a major air and ground operation using a large reserve of new aircraft, even sortie rates that fall would have to be curtailed. It was not a good situation, but at least the poor flying weather helped.

Beyond the destruction of the facilities that distilled the German oil, there were limitations with the fuel itself. Although the ingenious distillation process certainly worked, it was inefficient and the produced cost of Hitler’s “synfuels” were about four times the world market crude oil price. When the war began, the octane number of first-grade German aviation fuel was only about 89 and this was obtained only by fortifying the synthetic fuel with 16% aromatics containing tetraethyl lead. Meanwhile, the Americans had 100-octane gas courtesy the pre-war efforts of Jimmy Doolittle at upgrading refineries. The upshot of the difference in 1944 was that the P-51D’s Rolls Royce Merlin engine produced 1,520 hp with 100-octane fuel, while the Me-109G’s Daimler Benz 605 could only reach a similar level of performance with 25% more engine displacement and greater weight. In an effort to match the superior American fuels, the Germans in 1944 were adding 40% aromatics to their brew to pull the octane up to the 96-point range. This increase meant less fuel production overall at a time when the Germans were critically pressed for gasoline for pilot training. Then too, the increased fraction of the aromatics reduced performance in other ways: engines overheated more readily, richer-mixtures had to be run to prevent stalling (reducing aircraft endurance, fouling plugs and fuel efficiency) and the added compounds attacked rubber hoses and the seal-sealing bladders in German fuel tanks. And still the fuels were not equivalent. The Germans attempted to make up for the remaining gulf by using power boost, either methanol-water or nitrous oxide injection. This expedient did increase horsepower, but could only be used for short periods and had to be carefully turned on and off to maintain performance a less than certain event in the heat of combat.

The prospect of increasing fighter output was brighter. With his usual efficiency, Speer set up the Jägerstab, or Fighter Committee, within his Ministry of Armaments to set things straight. Aircraft factories were scattered to prevent intervention by the omniscient Allied air forces: 27 main complexes were brought into being along with many other smaller factories dotted about the German countryside. Critical plants, such as the Junkers Aero-plant producing the Jumo 004 jet and 213 piston engines were sequestered to the safety of underground factories at Kohnstein in the Harz Mountains. There they turned out their products in seven miles of tunnels offering the protection of 140 feet of solid rock. Except for the jet Ar-234 and the new Ju-388, all bomber production was halted; all resources would concentrate on increasing fighter output. Speer’s programs were astonishingly successful. Single engine fighter Gruppen were able to build up to unprecedented operational strengths. German fighter production reached its highest point of the war in September of 1944 when 2,876 Messerschmitt Me-109s and Focke Wulf Fw-190s were produced. It was the final and most remarkable recovery for the Luftwaffe during the war in Europe. Allied intelligence learned of all this by ULTRA decrypts. On October 21, Gen. Spaatz warned that the cost of the air campaign would increase dramatically if the enemy was able to effectively field its new-found strength.

One problem, however, was that such levels of production had been attained by the Jägerstab by concentrating on existing fighter types. The important objective for the Germans was to contest the Allied air power through the use of a strong fighter force. But how would this be accomplished? Should more planes be produced, or fewer planes of higher quality? The most troublesome Allied fighters were the P-47D “Thunderbolt” (top speed: 429 mph), the P-51D “Mustang” (437 mph) and the British Spitfire XIV (448 mph). Production of promising high performance German aircraft to counter these types proceeded at a much slower pace. These included such planes as the Ta-152H (top speed: 470 mph), the exotic Dornier 335 Pfeil or “Arrow” (477 mph) and the jet Me-262 (540 mph) and Arado Ar-234 (461 mph) models. But various problems, particularly the need for very high performance engines, prevented the exotic piston types from seeing service in any numbers. Only eleven of the push-pull propellered Do-335s were delivered by war’s end and only 67 of Dr. Kurt Tank’s beautiful Ta-152. Attempts to build a fighter based loosely on the Me-209, a racing version of the 109 petered out in 1944. With test pilot Fritz Wendel at the controls, this cleaned up piston-powered Me-209V-5 had shown it could reach 42,000 feet and reach speeds of nearly 500 mph. However, Speer did not dare suspend production of the standard Messerschmitt for re-tooling. Instead German production had concentrated on the Me-109G (390 mph), the high-altitude G-10 (426 mph) and the Fw-190A-8 (408 mph). In late fall, production began concentrating on two improved versions, the Me-109K-4s with a nitrous oxide injected Daimler-Benz engine (452 mph) and the Fw-190D-9 “long nose” or Dora (440 mph). Even so, these planes made up a minority of the Luftwaffe inventory. Alas, the Luftwaffe’s new found numerical strength in the fall of 1944 had been achieved at the classic cost quality. But what of the jets?

On May 22nd, 1943, Adolf Galland stopped by the flight testing center at Augsburg. He was to test perhaps the most revolutionary German technological aviation achievement of the war the Messerschmitt 262 jet. Galland’s flight made an indelible impression on the German officer. He was euphoric. “It was just like being pushed by an angel,” he proclaimed. Without delay, Galland sent a teletype message to Genfldm. Erhard Milch. He suggested dropping the Me-209 and immediately transferring the production capacity to the Me-262. “The aircraft represents a great step forward,” he cabled, “which assures us an unimaginable advantage in operations should the enemy adhere to the piston engine. The aircraft opens up completely new tactical possibilities.”

Certainly the new jet aircraft were the most palpable of Hitler’s promises of “wonder weapons” to turn the tide of the war. The Me-262 and the Ar-234, upon which so much hope was pinned, were coming off assembly lines in increasing quantities nearly a hundred per month during the fall. But this was not enough. According to Hitler’s grandiose plans, a new jet plane was scheduled for mass-production, the “Volksjäger” or “People’s Fighter.” The contract was awarded to Ernst Heinkel on September 8, 1944. The single-engined Heinkel-162 “Salamander” went from drawing board to test in the astonishing time of 37 days! In the first test flight made on December 6th, the tiny plane proved speedy, reaching 520 mph. The machine showed signs of it’s abbreviated incubation period. The second test flight a few days later killed the pilot, Flugkapitän Gotthold Peter, when the plane shed its plywood wings due to defective wood-bonding adhesive. Other fliers filed varying reports on the futuristic-looking beast. Some indicated it was ”pleasant to fly” while others related questionable flying characteristics. Almost all, however, agreed that any idea that glider trained recruits might fly the machine was mere fancy.

Clearly, however, Hitler would be unable to realize his summertime wish of “2,000 jet aircraft” to alter Allied air superiority overnight. On the desirability of the jet, Genlt. Adolf Galland, the General der Jagdflieger, was certain. “At the time I would rather have one Me-262 than five Me-109s,” he had told Hitler. Galland fervently believed that only “technically superior planes” could make up for the wide gulf between German pilot experience and their Allied foes. But Hitler insisted that the twin-engined Me-262 be used as a “Blitz bomber.”

Rebuilt Luftwaffe!? Part II


Historians over the years have pointed to Hitler’s decision on the Me-262 as an egregious error; another in a long series of meddlings which cost him the war. Most, however, have not been aware of the limitations under which the German jet was developed. There is little question that the aerodynamics and structural aspects of the plane were brilliant; it was far ahead of its time. A cruising speed of 525 mph with an endurance over an hour was a fantastic achievement for 1944 aviation technology. However, the big problem was the thing that made the propeller-less 262 such a potentially hot aircraft the Jumo 004 turbo-jet engines. As with most new technologies, the revolutionary engine experienced many teething troubles.

The turbo-jet operated at much higher temperatures and rotational speeds that any piston power-plant. Moreover, the metals usually used for high-temperature strength, alloys of nickel and chromium, were in very short supply in the Nazi inventory. The engineers were forced to rely on less-reliable substitutes. As a result, even as late as fall, 1944 the mean serviceable life of the jet engines was only eight hours for the early models! Metal fatigue created engine failures and fires were frequent. All through the summer and fall of 1944, there was always a heavily guarded convoy with replacement jet engines somewhere in Germany looking for Special Detachment E 51. Oblt. Werner Muffey remembers being happy that the Ar-234s had two turbojets:

“it was rare for a single engine to survive the 25 hours scheduled between overhauls. It was much more likely for only 5 to 10 hours to pass before something went wrong. In fact I once jealously preserved a unit for almost 30 hours which was considered a record. Then another turbojet threw several blades before I returned from my first sortie with it. After putting out a small fire in the Riedel gas tank, I returned directly to Oranienburg to change the engine.”

Even worse, German pilots flying the new aircraft learned to their horror that the turbojet was prone to suddenly quit or even catch fire when throttled too quickly. Due to the raw materials shortages, the composition of the turbine blades was not up to the loads which could be imposed upon it. The flight born discovery of “flame-out” would prove fatal to a number of pilots putting the 262 through its paces. The solution to this was to only throttle the engines slowly, a luxury that only a bomber or reconnaissance application could afford. Fighter dogfights demanded sudden acceleration and hence the first use of the Me-262 was most appropriately restricted to less taxing reconnaissance and level bombing missions.

In spite of German engineering genius, the vexing problems with the jet engine were never completely solved during the war. Then there were other mechanical problems, such as roughness in the fuel metering system, which in a piston powered plane might only mean a momentary reduction in power. In an Me-262, such mundane troubles could overheat the engine which would promptly disintegrate as it shed turbine blades. Flying a jet Me-262 was significantly less forgiving than jockeying around in a piston powered plane. Most of the pilots converting to the elite units flying this plane were very experienced, but jets represented new territory. For instance, a common even subconscious habit in piston aircraft, was to push the throttle forward to rev up the engine before easing it back. In a 262, this could drop an engine a potentially fatal mistake. There were even bizarre problems with the J2 fuel. In November and December of 1944 KG 51 experienced mysterious symptoms of poisoning in some of its pilots who had received minor burns. Sr. Warrant Officer Kohler, died after receiving only minor burns to his hands. After the cause was established as the fuel, the jet pilots were provided with leather clothing including protective gloves.

The unparalleled power of the turbojets led to other dangers never encountered in conventional piston aircraft. It was easy to exceed the airframe limits even in a steep climb full throttle would see speeds only encountered in the most daring dives in other planes. Also, unlike the howl of a piston plane under full throttle, the jet was deceptively quiet in the cockpit and a wary pilot had to be attentive to the airspeed indicator. There were high speed limits as well. Up to 570 mph the 262 operated faultlessly. However, as test pilots reached 585 mph, they found that control surfaces responded poorly. Beyond that things quickly became uncontrollable. Today, surviving Me-262 veterans reckon that a number of their compatriots succumbed to compressibility at the aerodynamic limits. Flying a V-2 chase sortie, Werner Muffey, the Technical Officer of an Ar-234 reconnaissance unit, learned that his jet powered craft could exceed the aircraft’s “envelope”:

“This was the only time I got into trouble with ‘Dr. Mach.’ Oblivious of my pilot’s duties and staring constantly down to detect the exploding V-2, I inadvertently pushed the stick forward. The vibration going through the airplane was quite dramatic, and I had some problems recovering control.”

In spite of early recognition of these problems, conversion training was not always satisfactory. Since there was no two-seater version of the 262, training flights were begun after cursory technical instruction. Usually the instructor, who often had little experience with the aircraft himself, would provide a pre-takeoff briefing, supervise the tricky start-up procedure for the engines and then talk the pilot through a flight over the radio. Often too much reliance was made of a pilot’s experience with conventional aircraft. Lt. Walther Hagenah was an experienced Fw-190 pilot from JG 3:

“Our ground school lasted one afternoon. We were told of the peculiarities of the jet engine, the dangers of flaming out at high altitude and their poor acceleration at low speeds. The vital importance of handling the throttles carefully was impressed upon us, lest the engines catch fire. But we were not permitted to look inside the cowling of the jet engine we were told that it was very secret and we did not need to know about it! By the time I reached III/JG 7 there was insufficient spare parts and insufficient spare engines; there were even occasional shortages of J-2 [jet fuel]. I am sure all of these things existed and that production was sufficient, but by that stage of the war the transport system was so chaotic that things often failed to arrive at the front-line units. In our unit, flying the Me-262, we had some pilots with only about a hundred hours’ total flying time. They were able to take off and land the aircraft, but I had the definite impression that they were of little use in combat. It was almost a crime to send them into action with so little training. Those young men did their best, but they had to pay a heavy price for their lack of experience.”

Aside from all of this, Hitler had already decided that the He-162 would be the new jet fighter and the Me-262 must carry bombs. Knowing of the coming invasion of France, he was fixated on the idea of German jets dropping bombs on the heads of the Americans on the beaches. In May, 1944 when Hitler insisted that the 262 be modified to carry bombs, less than fifty had been assembled and all were in use in test programs. Due to the poor reliability (the Jumo 004s were lasting less than 10 hours before failure) none of the jet-powered aircraft would be suitable for any combat role for some time even reconnaissance. The many critics of the decision to use the Me-262 as a fighter-bomber must remember that in 1944 the plane stood as the last chance for an effective offensive air weapon for the Luftwaffe. Any blame for lack of impact of the German jets must rest squarely on the technology itself, rather than on the manner in which the handful of planes were utilized. It was a matter of too little, too late.

However, the engineering problems loomed large; the Me-262 had been designed as a fighter. Change-over to a “hit and run” Blitz bomber required many modifications. The original plane had two fuel tanks, each holding about 200 gallons of J2 fuel. Armament consisted of four 30mm cannon. That the Blitz was to carry two 550 lb. bombs required more fuel to give it an acceptable range. Two additional fuel tanks were fitted one 55 gallon vessel under the pilot’s seat and another 130 gallons in the fuselage to the rear of the main tank. This additional weight not only decreased the plane’s performance, it also resulted in troubles with the plane’s center of gravity. The added weight in the tail of the Blitz was balanced by the two center mounted bombs and two of the four cannon were taken away. The rear fuel tank was never to be filled unless the plane had a bomb load. When flying, the pilot had to be careful that the rear tank was emptied first. Mishandling of the fuel cocks, draining the forward tank first, and dropping bombs would cause the aircraft to rear up violently. Elevator control could not restore such an ill-weighted 262 and pilots who forgot these procedures in the heat of battle could easily lose their aircraft.

The conversion of KG 51 to the 262 was carried out at Lechfeld beginning on September 4th under command of Oberstleutnant Wolfgang Schenck. By late November, Schenk’s command possessed some thirty jets with 26 operational and 48 pilots in training. As a bomber, the 262 reflected its bastardized upbringing. Unlike conventional types, such as the Ju-88, the Blitz was not fitted with a downward facing bomb sight. It had a simple reflector reticle suitable for aiming cannon fire. With practice, pilots found they could reasonably hit sizeable targets, but precision bombing was out of the question. Dive bombing was also Verboten since a personal edict from Hitler himself forbade it along with any flying over enemy territory at less than 13,000 feet lest a 262 fall into enemy hands from AA fire. All this made for some very inaccurate bombing; members of KG 51 began to coyly refer to themselves as the “crop damage Geschwader.” If that was not depressing enough, an “Edelweiss” pilot had to worry about his back, since there was no armor behind the pilot’s head. This design flaw was found responsible for the death of a number of 262 bomber pilots who were killed before design changes went into effect in March, 1945. Some of the experienced Ju-88 and Me-410 pilots of the group had little confidence in the turbine engines and a perpetual fuel shortage made extensive training impossible. Some 65 tons of scarce petrol were needed to provide rudimentary training for a replacement pilot.

Then finally in September, Hitler relented on the employment of the 262 as a fighter, at least in a limited sense. During a Führer Konferenz on September 22nd, on the further reconsideration of this thorny matter, Hitler spelled out a convoluted policy that would allow for some jet fighter versions of the 262 so long as a commensurate number of jet bombers were provided:

“The Ar-234 will, with all possible dispatch continue to be turned out as a bomber in the greatest possible numbers. As it is possible to use this aircraft for the short range targets with three 1,100 pound bombs, and for long-range targets with one 1,100 pound bomb, under considerably more favorable general conditions than the Me-262 when used as a bomber, the Führer confirms his earlier promise that, for every single-battle worthy 234 accepted as a bomber, the General in charge of the fighters [Galland] will be allocated one battle-worthy 262 fighter.”

The direct result was that some forty Me-262s became available for the formation of the first combat jet fighter unit. The incipient command was organized under the legendary Austrian fighter ace, Maj. Walter Nowotny. When he took over the command, “Nowi” had some 250 combat victories and was perhaps the most famous of the Luftwaffe aces. The distinguished title for his unit would take its leader’s name Versuchskommando Nowotny. With tremendous expectation, his unit became operational as a 262 fighter training unit in October with some 23 jets, flying from airfields at Achmer and Hesepe. Not surprisingly, the new jet fighter pilots experienced a rash of technical problems, which led to a very low serviceability rate; on November 1st the unit had only nine of its jets serviceable. There were also questions regarding effective methods of attack. So fast were the machines that the 262 would close on enemy aircraft very rapidly with the target in range for only a fraction of a second. The obvious conclusion, to slow to strike their quarry, was no good. This would only sacrifice their speed advantage.

“Our strength lay in our enormous speed. The reaction propulsion system made us something like twice as fast as the enemy’s airscrew driven fighters. Moreover, the armament of the 262 with 43mm cannon was not only sensational; it was ideally suited to destroying the solid thick-skinned bombers. But the technology of this revolutionary machine also had its weakness that made high-level aerial combat and attacks on bomber formations problematical. Swinging into the target’s wake from above was out because of the danger of exceeding the maximum safe [airframe] speed, the aircraft having no brakes with which to check the rapid acceleration involved in such a maneuver. Frontal attack on collision course with the bombers a favorite method with the experts because the target was virtually defenseless and the crews of the Flying Fortresses were exposed to the hail of bullets was also out because the combined approach speeds made such an attack impossible. In practice we went back to the old, conventional attack from behind, approaching the bomber formation with of course a tremendous speed plus through the defensive fire of the rear gunners and letting off our cannon at short range. The Me-262 was a pretty sensitive and vulnerable piece of machinery, however, and our losses turned out to be higher than we had feared.”

Rebuilt Luftwaffe!? Part III


Encountering the enemy jets for the first time was quite a shock for the P-51 pilots of the Eighth Air Force. So accustomed to being top dog, the Mustang jockeys were forced to admit that the jets were at least 75 mph faster in level flight. However, they reckoned that the 262 were much less maneuverable than the P-51 or even P-47, they accelerated more slowly and the engines appeared to be the target to shoot for when training guns on the enemy. Twenty-two year old Capt. Charles “Chuck” Yeager of the famed 357th Fighter Group (Col. Irwin H. Dregne) found that his P-51 steed, “Glamorous Glennis III,” could not keep up with Kommando Nowotny on November 6th:

“north of Osnabrück we spotted three Me-262s going 180 degrees to us at two o’clock low. We were at 10,000 feet. I and my flight turned to the right and headed the last man off. I got a hit or two on him before he pulled away. They were flying a loose V-formation and they did not take any evasive action, but seemed to depend on their superior speed. They pulled out of range in the haze.”

The Germans at Achmer were quite aware of these shortcomings. Even given all the difficulties, technical and tactical, Nowotny’s advanced fighters claimed 19 victories in their first month of operations for a loss of six Me-262s in combat and another nine lost to accidents. The attrition on the highly prized German jet pilots was severe; more pilots were lost to accidents with the fickle jet engines than in dogfights. After all, the average experience level of the German pilots flying the jets was less than ten hours on the type. On November 8th Kommando Nowotny picked up its activity, flying several sorties against a bomber raid. Lt. Franz Schall felled three escorting Mustangs in a single outing, although was himself shot down (he bailed out after being hit by Lt. James W. Kenny of 357th FG) and Nowotny reported his third kill in the Me-262. However, even with the jets’ superior speed, the P-51s got the better of the action and two of the Me-262s were shot down. Tragically, one of these was Nowotny himself. The holder of the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds was killed as he tried to bring his machine back to Achmer with his left engine out. Picked off by Mustangs of the 20th and 357th FGs while at slow speed, his Me-262 plunged out of the clouds to auger into a meadow near Bramshe. So ragged had become the loss rate of the unit, that it was temporarily withdrawn from action for reorganization. It was to become operational within a few weeks as Jagdgeschwader 7 at Lechfeld. The new detachment was to be commanded by Obst. Johannes Steinhoff.

In was decided in May of 1944 that the experienced Maj. Robert Kowalewski’s KG 76 would be the first Luftwaffe unit to receive the jet-powered Ar-234 bomber now starting to come out of the Arado factory. The only operation of the 234 in the summer of 1944 was as a high-performance camera carrying reconnaissance aircraft. Flying as Kommando Sperling the Staffel-sized unit demonstrated the dramatic capabilities of the B-series aircraft in several spectacular reconnaissance missions over the Allied invaders in August and later in the fall. After months of complete inability to gather aerial reconnaissance Kommando Sperling gave the Luftwaffe ability to scout Allied rear positions freely at will. The plane was a tremendous success.

But the III/KG 76 under Hptm. Dieter Lukesch would be the first unit to be equipped with the revolutionary bomber. Lukesch first flew the plane in July; it was love at first sight. It was very fast, easy to control and with the bubble glass nose possessed excellent visibility. On August 26th the first two bombers were delivered to the unit. Conversion training from their Ju-88A4s beginning almost immediately near Magdeburg. All the pilots chosen had extensive experience and Lukesch found that training went smoothly, although some had trouble with horizontal stability since the pilot was so far forward that there were no engines or wings to look at to help keep one’s bearings.

Helmut Rast was one of the chosen pilots. Rast had been a 19-year old student at Munich Technical School when the war broke out and soon became a flight instructor. However, he was bored with student flying and in 1943 obtained a transfer to the Luftwaffe’s major proving center at Rechlin as a test pilot. There he tested the very latest products of German genius, many of which were extremely dangerous in the test phase. But his personal favorite was the new Arado 234B the “Blitz” then in preparation for its assignment to the Luftwaffe as a reconnaissance aircraft. Rast found the jet a thing of beauty. The bubble-nosed bird handled smoothly and was exceptionally fast. Rast’s reputation flying the 234 rose quickly, being enlisted to conduct a mock combat with a Fw-190A, at the time one of the leading German piston powered aircraft. Rast’s 234 easily outpaced the Focke Wulf in level flight and was faster in climb and descent. One performance limitation was the 234’s turning radius which was very wide relative to the piston-powered fighter. But the major weakness was acceleration; the throttles of the Junkers Jumo 004Bs could not be changed rapidly during takeoff and landings. Vulnerable to attack, the low speed on approach or takeoff could not be changed quickly enough to execute defensive maneuver. Regardless, Rast’s superiors were greatly impressed by his mock combat. He was promoted to Unterfeldwebel and was eagerly assigned to the post of the first combat unit to use the 234, III Gruppe of KG 76. At Burg the pilots trained in earnest with their new craft.

There were problems with the bird, however, which had not really completed flight testing. “Hardly any aircraft arrived without defects,” and Lukesch remembered they “were caused by hasty completion and shortage of skilled labor at the factories.” Training continued throughout the fall, hampered by the slowly accumulating number of aircraft and a variety of accidents associated with the new type.

Two methods of aiming the 3,000 lb bomb load were developed. The first was to drop the bombs during a shallow dive with special periscope sight and a trajectory calculator; the second involved putting the jet on automatic pilot at high altitude and then using the Lotke 7K bombsight to release the bombs automatically after the target was centered in the crosshairs. This advanced technique had considerable safety advantages since high-speed, high-altitude flight could be maintained where the Ar-234 was nearly invulnerable to slower Allied fighters. However, Lukesch felt the method impractical since the Allies quickly learned to attempt attacks on the speedy jets from above with the faster piston types particularly the Tempests, and having one’s hands on the control and able to see behind the aircraft was vital to survive such assaults. Installation of the technically advanced autopilot also slowed the delivery of the aircraft to the unit and it was the end of October before III/KG 76 had 44 Ar-234s available.

Training conversion continued in earnest for the fledgling jet unit in November, although plagued by accidents. Some problems, such as getting used to the tricycle landing gear, were due to differences with the Ju-88, but a variety of troubles arose from the machines themselves. One unexpected problem was that the two Jumo 004 engines were too powerful for their own good and an unladen Ar-234 could easily approach the speed of sound where Chuck Yeager’s demon lived. A good example is the experience of Uffz. Ludwig Rieffel who was hurt when he mysteriously lost control of his Ar-234 near Burg on November 19th:

“The effects of nearing the sound barrier were virtually unknown to us at this time, the high speed of the aircraft sometimes surprising its victims. Rieffel was practicing a gliding attack when he experienced a reversal of the controls at Mach 1. He bailed out successfully, but the shock of the parachute opening at that speed ripped three of its sections from top to bottom. A freshly plowed field prevented him from being seriously injured. This happened later to Oblt. Heinkebut he was unable to escape from the aircraft which crashed into the ground in a vertical dive”

At the end of November KG 76 was reaching its operational strength with 68 Ar-234s on hand. On December 1st, the famous bomber ace and veteran of some 620 operational sorties, Maj. Hans-Georg Bätcher, took command of III/KG 76 to take the jet bombers into action. With so many bomber units now disbanded, Bätcher had the pick of the German bomber pilots. Pilots with the unit included Hptm. Diether Lukesch, holder of the Ritterkreuz with Oak Leaves and veteran of some 372 missions, as well as Hptm. Josef Regler, a veteran with 279 operational sorties under his belt. Unlike the fighter pilots, where the attrition and demand for pilots often meant low skill levels, the pilots with the Gruppe all had extensive flying experience.

Regardless of the minor danger posed by these small groups of German planes, the Allies had a phobia about them and kept their bases at Achmer, Hesepe and Rheine under constant surveillance. Only the profusion of 20mm flak around the bases and a standing guard of German piston-powered planes allowed the jets to get off the ground or land without being shot down during the vulnerable portion of their flight. Still the German bases harboring the jets received much unwelcome attention. A carpet bombing raid on the Rheine base on November 13th killed many members of KG 51.

Similar to the teething troubles of the Me-262 jet, Dr. Heinkel’s entry, the He-162, was designed to use another problem-plagued turbo-jet (BMW-003E-1). And perhaps more significantly, with only one engine, the reliability of the turbojet powerplant would be critical. Operationally, the short-ranged fighter was intended for employment against the enemy escort fighters as soon as they crossed into German territory to cause them to drop their drop-tanks and leave the bombers open for attack from the conventional German fighters. Galland, however, was totally opposed to this aircraft. Not only did he believe it to be of “dubious airworthiness,” but he also questioned whether the plane would ever come into production soon enough to alter the outcome of the war. Certainly it’s production would detract from assembly of great numbers of a proven design such as the Me-262. Even more fanciful was the plan to use Hitler Youth hastily trained in gliders to fly the Volksjäger. Regardless of such assessments, outlandish schemes called for production to be expanded from 500 to over 4,000 per month in salt mines and underground factories in Germany. But all this took on the special air of delusion typical of the last six months of the Third Reich. Neither the Volksjäger nor the Me-262 would be ready for the Ardennes in quantity; the main fighter available would be the Me-109 with which Germany had begun the war in 1939.

Regardless of their type, German aircraft numbers rose in a spectacular fashion that fall: from the end of the summer debacle on the ground in August of 1944 to the middle of November, German single engine fighter strength increased from 1,900 to 3,300 planes a nearly twofold increase. The new aircraft were added to the day fighter force in the form of six new fighter Gruppen and by increasing the established strength of lower echelon units. This improvement resulted in an increase from three to four Staffeln per fighter group and each Staffel was increased from 12 to 16 aircraft. In December alone, a total of 2,953 new aircraft were delivered from the factories to the Luftwaffe. Indeed, so plentiful were the planes that the main problem was finding capable, warm bodies with which to fly the machines and aviation-grade fuel for the intended missions. Piston fighter aircraft were abundant and pilots often found it more expedient to take a new plane than repair a damaged one:

”We simply went to the depot nearby, where they had hundreds of brand new 109s G-10s, G-14s and even the very latest K models. There was no proper organization anymore: the depot staff just said, ‘There are the aircraft, take what you want and go away.’ But getting fuel that was more difficult”

Even the jets were not exempt from the petrol shortage. An OKL circular commanded that J2 jet fuel must be carefully conserved. The German jet bases were hauling the world’s most advanced aircraft to the end of the runway with oxen:

“the monthly production, compared with possibilities of consumption, is very small. As the jet engines have a relatively high consumption rate, it is absolutely forbidden for these particular aircraft to taxi under their own power prior to taking off and after landing. Remember that the Me-262 consumes 200 liters of J2 while taxiing for five minutes under its own power.”

In spite of strenuous efforts Hitler’s hope of “2,000 jet fighters by fall” never materialized. As it had been for the last five years of war, the Me-109 and Fw-190 would carry any German hopes of contesting Allied air power. As for filling the cockpits of the new aircraft, the German plans were sublime; it was anticipated that many of the needed personnel would come from the now moribund heavy bomber command or superfluous reconnaissance units now disbanded. Whether there would be fuel for any of this remained a major question.

The WWI Air War over the Sea

When in August, 1918, I found on visiting France a complete chain of Naval Aviation Stations engaged in a systematic patrol of the waters of that “neck of the bottle” through which our troops and supplies had to pass, I had but to examine the weekly charts of German submarine operations to realize how much our aviators were doing to make these waters safe.

—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Flying Officers of the United States Navy 1917–1919

The protection given to convoys by the presence of accompanying aeroplanes is considerable and though attacks have actually been carried out when D.H.6 aeroplanes have been present, there is no doubt but that the enemy’s submarines have been seriously hampered in their operations by the constant fear of being attacked or sighted by aircraft. In this connection it is of interest to note that the day of greatest losses was one on which aircraft were unable to operate.

—P. R. C. Groves for Director, Air Division, Employment of Aeroplanes for Anti-Submarine Work on North East Coast

Although airmen’s attempts to liaise with the infantry during the war did not always achieve spectacular results, cooperative efforts between aviators and sailors proved far more impressive. At the outset of the war the British Royal Navy implemented a North Sea blockade to prevent merchant ships from reaching their destinations and keep the German surface fleet bottled up in port. The military and geopolitical effects of the blockade, though slow to show themselves, eventually proved effective, slowly bleeding Germany of resources, sapping the morale of the German people, and giving the United States a financial stake in Allied success. More narrowly, the blockade set the tone for the war at sea and for the next four years German naval activity in the Atlantic, the North Sea, the English Channel, and the air war over these waters centered on efforts to either break the blockade or, failing that, to inflict similar damage on the Allies.

Naval aviation differed significantly from its land-based counterpart in the way it interacted with the non-flying forces it supported. Military aviators regularly separated their reconnaissance missions from offensive operations, observing or photographing enemy activities that bombers or the artillery dealt with at a later time. Naval flyers similarly reported their sightings to nearby cooperating surface vessels, but the fleeting nature of floating targets frequently forced naval aviators to attack the targets they spotted immediately.

An American, Eugene Ely, demonstrated what the future held for naval aviation when he successfully flew an airplane off the deck of USS Birmingham in November 1910 and then two months later landed one on the deck of the Pennsylvania.3 The British created an Air Department within the Admiralty and began their own experiments in cooperation between aircraft and naval vessels in 1912, still more than two years before the beginning of the war.4 The duties naval aviators anticipated performing included scouting for the fleet using aircraft carried aboard ships, patrol work along the British coastline, and cooperative missions flown alongside defending flotillas and submarines. In January 1912, Lt. H. A. Williamson, a British submarine officer with an airplane pilot’s license, first proposed using aircraft to patrol against submarines. He hypothesized that, even if unable to attack, the aircraft’s presence would force a targeted submarine to stay completely submerged, thereby reducing its threat. Williamson noted the French were also experimenting with this idea. Later developments would prove Williamson’s predictions correct. Within six months early results of the British tests convinced the Royal Navy’s Submarine Committee that aircraft showed “promise of providing a valuable anti-submarine weapon.” On September 11, 1912, Capt. Murray Sueter, director of the British Royal Navy’s Air Department, submitted an aircraft development proposal to the Board of Admiralty in which he listed potential duties that included “assisting destroyers to detect and destroy submarines.” Sueter’s plan encompassed suggestions for a network of coastal air stations at various locations around the British coast, including Calshot, Dundee, Eastchurch, Felixstowe, Fort Grange, the Isle of Grain, Killingholme and Yarmouth.8 The Admiralty adopted Sueter’s scheme the following month and had most of the planned installations in operation prior to the outbreak of war. In response to the first successful U-boat attack on a British vessel, HMS Pathfinder, on September 2, 1914, the Navy beefed up the stations at Dundee and Killingholme. By the end of November the Navy implemented a revised plan specifically aimed at protecting the Straits of Dover, establishing bases to cover the fleet on both sides of the English Channel, in Dover, England, and on the French coast at Dunkirk. Earlier that same month the British introduced an offensive element to its air operations when a Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) seaplane took off from Dunkirk to mount the first direct air strike on a German U-boat. Though the crew succeeded in locating the U-boat their attack failed when the submarine dived to escape. After this inauspicious beginning the Dunkirk crews devoted their attention mainly to reconnaissance and bombing of the German submarine bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend.

Lighter-than-air vehicles also played a role from the beginning of British anti-submarine operations. Gas-filled airships operating over the water offered the same endurance advantage that observation balloons held in land battles allowing aircrews to remain over their patrol areas hours longer than airplanes. By the summer of 1914 the Admiralty had taken over complete control of airship development excluding the Army, and in February 1915 Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord, ordered the construction of the SS (Submarine Scout) airship, the first lighter-than-air type specifically dedicated to anti-submarine warfare. The Admiralty’s goal in ordering SS airships focused especially on keeping open the Straits of Dover and access to the Irish Sea. Their apprehension proved well founded. By the spring, U-boats of the Deutsche Kriegsmarine (German War Navy) appeared for the first time off the west coast of Great Britain threatening receipt of western hemisphere imports. To offer political cover for its submarine campaign, Germany declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone, seeking to prohibit the area to any and all traffic, even ships representing neutral nations. Locating submarines in time to launch preemptive attacks required more speed and broader range than two-dimensional warfare offered, making aircraft crucial to defense. Submarines might be spotted cruising on the surface—time on the surface being necessary to recharge the U-boat’s batteries—or, in clear weather and calm seas, the boat might be visible even while submerged. By the end of the year, British constructors had built twenty-nine Submarine Scouts.

The amplified threat and the shift from two- to three-dimensional warfare required a broad reorganization of the entire naval defense system in order to incorporate the aerial component. As the war neared its first anniversary, RAdm. Sydney Freemantle, head of the Admiralty’s Signals Committee, categorized reconnaissance as the airship’s primary function, adding that its “duties are to locate enemy submarines and to keep them in sight as long as possible.” Successful communications between the airships and the Navy’s destroyers were clearly essential; to guarantee the strength of that link the Admiralty established special transmission and reception stations and proposed instituting a dedicated radio wavelength. The British Coast Guard administered the wireless stations reporting to each area’s senior naval officer or the Naval Centre. In August, in order to achieve tighter liaison between aircraft observers and the surface vessels whose attacks they would facilitate, the Admiralty removed all naval air stations from operational control of the director of the Air Department and placed them under the command of the various district senior naval officers.

During 1915, the RNAS concentrated on lighter-than-air craft for anti-submarine warfare owing to the “unseaworthiness of seaplanes and the general lack of heavier-than-air equipment and personnel.” Most of the airplanes and aircrew still in England remained unavailable for anti-submarine work, reserved instead for Royal Flying Corps training facilities. Those not tied up with training duties the RFC saved for home defense missions, thus protecting a nervous British public against the threat of zeppelin attacks on military targets and cities in the British interior. This allocation of resources reflected a new strategic approach to the defense of the British homeland. During the first months of the conflict responsibility for aerial defense of the United Kingdom had rested entirely with the Admiralty. In June 1915, acting on the recommendation of War Office Director of Home Defence Gen. Launcelot E. Kiggell, the chief of the Imperial General Staff divided control of home defense responsibilities. The Royal Naval Air Service stood accountable for attackers as they crossed the English Channel, and the Army’s Royal Flying Corps took charge once raiders had penetrated the coastline. Though shedding accountability for aerial defense of the mainland should have made more naval aircraft available for the war against the U-boats, division of control between the Army and the Admiralty and the transfer of naval air station command out of the Air Department to senior naval officers later in the summer instead exacerbated competition for these resources. The situation became further complicated by an increase in reconnaissance work over the English Channel and the North Sea that prompted the British to expand their Dunkirk Air Command. During the spring of 1916 the RNAS divided the command “into three wings, one for aerial reconnaissance, photography and control of naval gunfire, one for bombing and one for aerial fighting.”

Provision of bombing and aerial combat capabilities ensured that British naval aviators did not have to rely solely on passive defensive measures to combat the submarine menace. The highly mobile nature of the war at sea meant that naval aviators did not always have time to return to base or signal for help before their target disappeared. The Dunkirk group had already demonstrated the potential value of direct interdiction by launching some of the first aircraft attacks on U-boats at sea. Early in the war the Royal Naval Air Service organized an offensive capability, hoping to hit the enemy in his lair rather than simply waiting for his ships to appear. In its first month of operations, March 1915, Dunkirk crews launched bombing attacks on Ostend, Middlekerke and Hoboken, Antwerp, claiming (inaccurately, as it turned out) one submarine destroyed and two damaged. The naval airmen organized a combined air- and seaplane force some thirty strong utilizing seaplane stations on England’s east coast and a newly developed seaplane carrier, HMS Empress, with the aim of attacking German submarine pens across the English Channel. The group carried out several missions, but did not achieve significant success.

By the end of 1915 improved German antiaircraft defenses and the relative ineffectiveness of the light bomb loads early air- and seaplanes could carry caused the RNAS to forego further heavier-than-air offensive activity. Initially, airships appeared to offer an alternative, given their more impressive carrying capacity, but ultimately lighter-than-air bombers proved no more successful in achieving measurable submarine destruction than their heavier-than-air counterparts. Consequently, British airship crews returned to concentrating on reconnaissance, searching for submarines already at sea in conjunction with surface vessels rather than attacking the U-boats in their pens.

Despite the considerable attention historians have devoted to its bombing attacks on London throughout the war, the German Naval Airship Division devoted substantially more of its resources to reconnaissance than to destruction. Of the 1,497 sorties German airship crews mounted during the conflict, 971 (65 percent) had scouting over the North Sea as their purpose, compared to the 306 missions (20 percent) flown to drop bombs on England. The rather meager £1,527,544 total damage done to England during the German airship raids offers clear evidence that airship crews flying reconnaissance missions performed potentially far more valuable services.

Throughout 1916 and into the following year the British developed the Coastal airship, a larger design capable of longer patrols, and added to the number of stations dotting the United Kingdom’s shoreline. Between January and December, the RNAS constructed new facilities at Pembroke, Pulham, Longside, Howden, Mullion, and East Fortune, and opened an airship school at Cranwell. Reconsidering its earlier decision to abandon efforts to copy Germany’s successful zeppelins, the Navy resumed construction of a project previously cancelled, Rigid Airship No. 9, and built a large storage shed to accommodate the aerial behemoth at Howden. Anticipating further additions to its rigid aerial fleet in 1917, the Admiralty built more sheds at its Pulham, Longside, and East Fortune stations, and at the Cranwell training facility. Extending its reach off the British mainland the RNAS added an SS station at Caldale, in the Orkney Islands, for work with the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow.

Despite these preparations and its early appreciation of aviation’s potential value in the anti-submarine war, not until the third year of the war did the Royal Navy give priority to the design and construction of heavier-than-air aircraft capable of directly attacking the U-boats. Until then neither the British nor the French felt any pressing need to rush. Germany’s desire to keep the United States out of the war had led the Kaiser to restrict the conduct of his U-boat commanders. This political strategy prevented submarines from achieving their full destructive potential and kept Allied naval losses within manageable limits during the war’s first two years. But by the second half of 1916 the German military and political situation had both eroded. Germany’s attempt to defeat the French at Verdun had failed, ending in nearly as many German casualties as French, a situation made worse by hundreds of thousands further German, French, and British losses at the battle of the Somme. In the wake of these setbacks, the Kaiser’s high command reorganized its military, naval, and aviation assets hoping that, by bold measures, they might defeat the French and British in whatever time remained before the United States entered the war. As a key component of this new strategy, the imperial government stepped up U-boat activity permitting the Kriegsmarine to return to unrestricted submarine warfare.

The lull in submarine activity in the Atlantic during the first half of 1916 had been prompted largely by American diplomatic protests. Germany’s failure to bring about a favorable resolution to the war at Verdun and the heavy fighting at the Somme brought home the prospects of eventual defeat. Balanced against the possibility of losing the war the political risk of offending the United States seemed one worth taking. U-boats resumed hunting prey in British home waters in August 1916 and the new threat prompted the British to expand seaplane patrols in September. In response, Adm. Stanley Cecil Colville, commander of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth, requested installation of a four-machine seaplane base at Portland to supplement the existing facility at Calshot and two more SS stations, one for the Isle of Wight and one for Portland, each with ten airships.

Actions like Colville’s proved preliminary to a wholesale reorganization of the war against the U-boat and, on December 18, 1916, the Admiralty created the Anti-Submarine Division (ASD). The new organization took a special interest in aviation and vastly expanded both the number of heavier- and lighter-than-air craft available and the role of its aerial assets in the anti-submarine campaign. Creation of the Anti-Submarine Division centralized naval aerial activities that previously had been left to the individual prerogatives of each region’s senior naval officer. The new division organized a coordinated system of coastal patrols and split naval aviation according to its offensive and defensive functions, much as the Dover Command had earlier divided its organization into reconnaissance, bombing, and fighting wings. Offensive assets included the airplanes and seaplanes patrolling Britain’s waters actively hunting submarines, purely defensive reconnaissance missions being left to airships due to their endurance. Given these measures made areas near the coasts safer but left ships farther out to sea to their own devices, the director of the ASD further recommended enhancing direct protection of the fleet by equipping British vessels with kite balloons to improve their fields of vision.

By January 1917 the British had built a massive naval aviation program that combined three seaplane carriers in service with more under construction, ships equipped with kite balloons, plans for rigid airships, coastal airships protecting the home waters, and large seaplanes able to patrol farther away. Yet, despite this abundance of assets, Adm. Sir David Beatty, commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet, regarded his air strength insufficient compared with his needs and recommended to the Admiralty that: “all naval officers who are engaged upon duties not connected with the fleet should be withdrawn and utilized for developing the Royal Naval Air Service.”

The early months of 1917 also saw Germany remove all remaining restraints from its U-boat commanders, resuming unrestricted submarine warfare that the German High Command hoped would bring the war to a successful conclusion within six months.40 Instead, within just over two months the decision to escalate its cruiser war produced the outcome Germany most hoped to avoid. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Ultimately, the resumption of unrestricted attacks combined with a botched German attempt to recruit Mexico into the war on its side, prompted the United States to enter the conflict.

The U-boat war reached its peak coincident with the American entry into the war. The last half of April 1917 saw approximately 50 percent of the German submarine fleet at sea with five ships sunk on average each day. The 19th proved the worst single day of the month for the Allied merchant fleet, when U-boats and German mines sunk eleven ships and eight fishing vessels.42 This spike in submarine activity pushed the average for the year 1917 to three ships sunk per day. As part of the British response the RNAS laid out formal areas for aerial patrols and categorized those missions as “routine,” “emergency,” and “contact,” with contact flights reserved for its seaplanes. Beginning operations in late April, the new patrol system received formal Admiralty sanction on May 8, 1917. Station commanders at Nore, Harwich, Yarmouth, Killingholme, South Shields, Dundee, and Houton Bay coordinated patrol hours and areas in systematic fashion to avoid overlap and to ensure that each district had at least one aircraft on duty in the air during all possible flight hours.

The British further refined their naval aerial reconnaissance system in the spring of 1917 designing both the spider web system and Tracing U. The spider web created an imaginary octagon of chords radiating 60 miles out of the North Hinder light ship in the English Channel, an epicenter around which seaplanes could systematically patrol guaranteeing maximum coverage with a minimum supply of aircraft. Spider web patrols began on April 13, 1917, and in the first eighteen days five flying boats flew twenty-seven patrols sighting eight U-boats and bombing three. Tracing U (“U” for U-boat) divided the southern portion of the North Sea into grids similar to those in common use by artillery units operating on the Western Front, allowing commanders of coastal air stations to quickly pinpoint submarine sightings, then dispatch attacking aircraft or communicate the information to nearby destroyers.

Organizational refinements to the reconnaissance and patrol system proved effective and valuable, but the adoption of the convoy system in late April 1917 proved the most significant move forward toward defeating the submarine. To this point in the war many senior commanders in the British Admiralty opposed convoying merchant vessels believing that warships should be reserved for offensive action rather than escort duty. The large increase in sinkings that followed Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February, the success of an experiment in protecting French coal vessels begun the same month, and the entry of the United States into the war in April combined to reverse their opinions. Furthermore, America’s enlistment in the Allied cause increased the number of ships available for convoy duty and opened US ports for use as convoy assembly points.

The added naval capacity brought with it greater responsibility for Allied aviators. In order to protect the Atlantic courses over which the American Expeditionary Force and its equipment would travel naval aviation expanded its former role in protecting Anglo-French military traffic and neutral merchant shipping during the last half of 1917. Land-based airplanes and seaplanes could patrol the areas off the British and French coasts to the extent of their range covering the arrival of ships during the last leg of their travel from the United States. Kite balloons towed by warships could extend the effective field of vision of the convoy before the aerial escort picked it up, allowing crews a lifesaving early look at potential attackers throughout the journey. The British strengthened the new system further by completing construction of the network of airship stations the RNAS had begun organizing in 1916, the last becoming fully operational by the end of 1917. The RNAS, of course, protected the British coast and that portion of the French shoreline most vital to arriving British traffic. The French Navy also vigorously defended its own ports, but paid more attention to the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, leaving the Atlantic largely to their British allies and later to the AEF. The US Navy joined the effort within a few months of the American declaration of war and throughout 1918 expanded the network of protective air stations further still, taking over some British, French, and Italian coastal bases and constructing some of its own.

After the task of organizing an American army, an army that barely existed when the United States declared war, protection of that force as it crossed the Atlantic to fight on the Western Front represented the most important job facing American military and naval leaders in April 1917. In addition to the naval air stations they would build or take over in Europe, US Navy commanders faced the challenge of defending embarkation and receiving bases on their own side of the Atlantic, as well as a small number of less vulnerable installations on the Pacific coast. Even with aerial patrols fully operational the Navy would have to defend its ships against German submarines through most of the Atlantic crossing without the direct assistance of airplanes owing to the limited range of aircraft operating out of its coastal air stations. Taking their cue from British and French experience, American naval commanders enhanced the safety of the US fleet during that vulnerable period by equipping nearly every class of its ships with balloons to provide cover for the convoys.

Building the aerial organization necessary to protect the fleet required putting US naval aviators on duty in France as quickly as possible. Within five weeks of the American declaration of war the Navy dispatched Lt. Kenneth Whiting to take charge of the first group of naval flight trainees sent to France. Training preparations progressed well enough that by July the Navy reported to the French that two schools had been established within the French interior, one at Tours to instruct pilots and the second at San Raphael for prospective mechanics and observers. Plans had also been made for an additional school to teach naval artillery observation as well as an operational station at Moutchic-Lacanau.

Once trained the Navy’s aviators would serve at a network of stations in the planning stages or already under construction on both sides of the Atlantic. By July 1917 provisional plans existed for the organization of naval air stations at Dunkerque, Le Croisic, and St. Trojan in addition to the facilities at Tours, San Raphael and Moutchic-Lacanau. Operations commenced at Moutchic-Lacanau on November 11, 1917 and within a week the naval air station at Le Croisic launched the first of an eventual 1,045 wartime patrol flights.

By the following April another four stations had opened in Great Britain and France, at Killingholme, Ile Tudy, Dunkerque, and Paimboeuf, as well as a base at Bolsena, Italy. Patrols from these and the extant British and French air bases impressively demonstrated the value of aerial reconnaissance to the convoy system. In the spring, RAdm. Henry G. Wilson told the French press that cooperation between the French and US navies had substantially reduced sinkings in the waters along the French coast, comparing October 1917, during which thirty-four ships were torpedoed to February and April 1918, when no ships had been lost to the U-boats.

Though submarine losses directly attributable to aircraft action are difficult to document, the mere presence of airplanes or airships frequently played critical roles in the demise of U-boats. Two incidents, both of which coincidentally took place on April 24, 1918, provide typical examples. In the first, airship SSZ 41, stationed at RAF Polegate received a report of a submarine operating southeast of the Isle of Wight. In response, the crew patrolled in the vicinity of the submarine’s reported sighting for twelve hours in a dense fog, returning without having sighted the U-boat. A torpedo boat destroyer found and sank the German raider later in the morning. Official speculation held that the submarine had been forced to remain submerged in order to avoid detection by the airship and that by morning the desperate need for fresh air and recharged batteries forced the boat to the surface, putting it in a situation where it could no longer avoid detection.

The second incident further demonstrates the potential of air-sea cooperation. Two American seaplanes patrolling off the French coast near Penmarch spotted what they believed to be a German submarine operating two miles from a convoy, responding to the opportunity with two bombs. Tracking the encounter, USS Stewart left its position in the convoy to investigate. While en route, the Stewart watched the aircraft mark the site with smoke bombs and, on arriving at the scene the American ship dropped depth charges after which the crew observed oil on the surface. Though no wreckage surfaced, other ships in the vicinity observed oil as late as two days later, providing strong evidence of a sinking.

The success of the patrols and the convoy system firmly established what the world’s navies had been learning throughout the war—that extending the vision of ships using aerial observers saved lives and material. Over the course of the war’s remaining months the US Navy established a dozen stateside naval air bases, in addition to a pair in Canada, one each in the Azores and the Panama Canal Zone, and a total of twenty-seven air stations in Europe. The stations on the American side of the Atlantic functioned primarily as coastal patrol stations protecting the convoy assembly points from the threat of German submarines. The nineteen naval air stations on the European side of the Atlantic that conducted similar reconnaissance flights generally communicated their sightings to nearby ships but occasionally launched their own attacks on real or suspected submarines.

Considering naval heavier- and lighter-than-air units along with the Army’s airplanes and balloon sections makes it clear that American aviation had reconnaissance and observation as its main purpose. Fifteen North American naval air stations and one in the Panama Canal Zone had reconnaissance as their primary duty, as did nineteen of the US Navy’s twenty-seven European stations. In comparison, the French established a total of thirty-six coastal seaplane bases, as well as a half dozen balloon centers, and four dirigible bases. Adding those thirty-five American bases to the forty-five US Air Service airplane squadrons and the seventeen American balloon companies working on the Western Front raises the total number of American aviation units that served during the conflict to ninety-seven, out of which seventy, or 72 percent, performed reconnaissance or observation as their primary function. Regardless of how military and naval air power developed over the rest of the twentieth century, during the First World War its principal and most valuable function lay in the aviators’ ability to see and report what happened on the ground and water.

The numbers of aircraft acquired by the world’s navies during the war further document the growing appreciation for aviation. The British Navy increased its heavier-than-air aircraft stock from fewer than one hundred to nearly three thousand, its airship strength from six to 111, and its inventory of captive balloons from two to 200. The Deutsch Kriegsmarine air fleet grew from twenty-four air- and seaplanes to nearly 1,500, and its lighter-than-air division worked its way through eighty-three airships, beginning the war with one and making it to the armistice with nineteen. The French Navy enlarged its heavier-than-air aircraft supplies from eight at the outset of war to 1,264 at the end, alongside fifty-eight airships and 198 kite balloons. Even the more limited resources of Austria-Hungary and Italy grew exponentially, the Austro-Hungarian air- and seaplane fleet expanding between eleven- and twelve-fold and the Italian inventory by more than twenty-fold. For its part, over the relatively short time it spent at war the US Navy grew its aircraft inventory from fifty-four airplanes and seaplanes, one airship, and two balloons in April 1917 to over 2,100 heavier-than-aircraft, fifteen airships, and more than two hundred balloons at the armistice. These figures reflect the same kind of progress the world’s other warring powers made during the conflict.

Although these dramatic operational changes and numerical increases speak to how thoroughly aviation had been accepted into the world’s navies, they do not begin to hint at the change in character the presence of aircraft brought to the war at sea. Although aircraft may have failed to live up to naval leaders’ prewar expectations due to airframe and powerplant technological limitations, through its reconnaissance function naval aviation prevented many potential sea disasters. History’s failure to acknowledge this enormous contribution lies in the challenge proving a negative always presents to the post-event analyst. In evaluating the impact of the RNAS/RFC merger that created the Royal Air Force on April 1, 1918, one historian argued the demise of the Royal Naval Air Service “crippled Britain’s credibility as a sea power.” During the First World War and afterwards the US Navy arrived at the same conclusion. The day had arrived when a modern navy seeking to project its nation’s power around the globe could not hope to compete without its aircraft.

Russian missile system spirited out of Libya by US

The US secretly flew a Russian-made Pantsir missile launching system to Germany.

A captured Pantsir S1 paraded in Tripoli by government forces, May 2020. This may be the system the U.S. Air Force flew out a month later but it is likely impossible to know for sure.

A truck-mounted Russian air defence missile system captured on a Libyan battlefield was flown intact to a US air base in Germany in a covert mission.

The operation was ordered amid concerns that the Pantsir S-1 missile battery, which can easily bring down civilian aircraft, could fall into the hands of militias or arms smugglers in the war-torn north African country.

The acquisition of a Pantsir, designed to defend against U.S. and NATO aircraft, is a windfall to the U.S. intelligence community.

A Pantsir-S1 short range air defense system abandoned by its operators in Libya was covertly transported to Rammstein Air Force Base in Germany by the United States.

According to The Times, the secretive mission was carried out in June 2020, due to concerns that the Pantsir-S1, provided for the Libyan National Army by the United Arab Emirates, could fall into the hands of militias or arms smugglers, following its abandonment by LNA militias during the fall of al-Watiya Airbase. The mission was carried out in June, after the Pantsir had been seized by Mohamed Bahroun, a notorious militia commander also known as ‘the Rat’, following its transportation to the town of Zawiya.

However, forces loyal to interior minister Fathi Bashagha forced Bahroun’s militia to hand over the Pantsir, and then transported it to a base hosting Turkish forces. It was then delivered to Zuwara airport, where a US team had arrived aboard a C-17 Globemaster III. With the precious cargo secured, the C-17 then departed for Rammstein, where the trail went cold.

Furthermore, US technical analysis could help develop a response to newer Pantsir variants like the S1M or SM. While KBP Tula, manufacturer of the Pantsir, claims that the newer models are significantly more effective due to incorporating lessons learned from similar poor showings in Syria, they ultimately reuse the base Pantsir system design, and possibly retain the same exploitable weaknesses.

The Pantsir S-1 is one of Russia’s first post-Cold War, low-level air-defense systems. The system consists of 12 57E6 short-range, radar- and electro-optically-guided surface-to-air missiles with a maximum range of 11 miles. The weapons load is rounded out with a pair of 30-millimeter, radar-directed autocannons. The entire system sits on the bed of a 8×8 truck chassis.

While Pantsir has been widely exported, Russian military forces still use it, making it a system U.S. and NATO forces could face in wartime. U.S. forces have reportedly gained access to Pantsirs in UAE military service during joint exercises, but the Libyan system is the first one the U.S. military and intelligence community get to keep.

The weapon may likely end up at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, the home of the U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center, which maintains a Foreign Material Exploitation center for the express purpose of studying captured, stolen, or otherwise-acquired foreign weapon systems.

The system will likely be dismantled and rebuilt, and the knowledge of how Pantsir engages enemy aircraft will help protect U.S. and allied airplanes in the future.

The Pantsir is meant to provide air defense to headquarters, supply units, air bases, and other important sites from threats including low-level fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, drones, and even cruise missiles.

The timing of The Times’ scoop is also rather interesting, coming on the same day as the announcement that the Biden administration would be reviewing the sale of F-35s to the UAE. Some opponents of the deal had pointed to the UAE support of the LNA as a reason for opposing the deal, with none other than the Defense Intelligence Agency stating in a report that the UAE “may” have been funding Wagner’s operations in Libya.

LongShot Unmanned Air Vehicle

Artist’s concepts of LongShot UAV.

DARPA Initiates Design of LongShot Unmanned Air Vehicle

Program seeks to significantly increase engagement range and effectiveness of air-to-air weapons.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to create an air-launched drone that carries its own smaller weapons, a concept that brings to mind a lethal Russian nesting doll packed with missiles.

If successful, the new UAV — called LongShot — could allow high-value manned aircraft like fighters and bombers to hang back at standoff distances while the drone moves forward and strikes multiple targets using its own air-launched weapons.

DARPA announced Feb. 8 that it had awarded contracts to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for the first phase of the program, during which the companies will create preliminary designs.

DARPA’s LongShot program, which is developing an air-launched unmanned air vehicle (UAV) with the ability to employ multiple air-to-air weapons, has awarded contracts to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman for preliminary Phase I design work. The objective is to develop a novel UAV that can significantly extend engagement ranges, increase mission effectiveness, and reduce the risk to manned aircraft.

Current air superiority concepts rely on advanced manned fighter aircraft to provide a penetrating counter air capability to effectively deliver weapons. It is envisioned that LongShot will increase the survivability of manned platforms by allowing them to be at standoff ranges far away from enemy threats, while an air-launched LongShot UAV efficiently closes the gap to take more effective missile shots.

U.S., NATO, and Japanese air forces have dominated the skies since the end of the Cold War, but a new generation of Russian and Chinese fighters and missiles are quickly changing the playing field. Russia and China are both working on a new series of very long-range air-to-air missiles, including the Chinese PL-15 and the Russian R-37M (NATO code name: “Axehead”), which are designed to lock onto and shoot down enemy aircraft before they get into missile range.

The West is in danger of losing this range battle. The AIM-120 AMRAAM radar-guided missile, which is the primary air-to-air missile the U.S. and its allies use, has an effective range of about 100 miles. But Russia’s Axehead missile has an estimated range of about 124 miles, while China’s PL-15 has roughly the same range and reportedly uses a high-speed ramjet.

Most modern rocket-powered missiles tend to coast at the outer edge of their range, as the rocket fuel has already been expended. In addition to providing speed, a ramjet also ensures that a missile doesn’t start slowing down at maximum range.

This means Russian or Chinese fighters have the capability to shoot first against a non-stealthy Western or Japanese adversary. In a business where the pilot who shoots first usually wins, this is a huge advantage. It also means both countries can target tankers, AWACs control planes, and other support aircraft at very long ranges, forcing them to operate even farther from the air battle and making them less useful.

Imagine a brand new U.S. Air Force F-15EX fighter jet. Even though it’s armed with over a dozen AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, it could still be out-ranged by a Chengdu J-20 fighter armed with PL-15 missiles. Now, imagine the F-15EX instead equipped with two Longshot UAVs, each armed with a pair of AMRAAM missiles.

The F-15EX could launch its LongShots, which would then close with the enemy, while hanging back to both direct the drones and take evasive action against incoming missiles. The J-20 suddenly has to contend with not one F-15EX, but two LongShot drones, each as dangerous as a real crewed fighter. The F-15EX’s likelihood of surviving the engagement increases considerably, while the J-20’s decreases.

LongShot is currently meant for fighter jets to carry it, but the big question is whether or not other platforms could use it, too. A LongShot that’s svelte enough to fit inside a bomb bay of a B-2 or upcoming B-21 Raider bomber could turn the stealth bomber into a formidable, long-range air-to-air weapon system.

LongShot is still a long way from flying, and DARPA hasn’t given an estimated date of the first flight. But there’s nothing all that revolutionary about the technology—it’s basically a cruise missile armed with air-to-air missiles.

Once DARPA successfully demonstrates the concept, the agency will hand it off to one of the armed services, like the Air Force, for final development and fielding. And then the work of America’s adversaries will get a whole lot harder.

The drone (or one of its descendants) could conceivably be launched from land, or even from warships at sea. U.S. air power could pop up in the most unlikely of places, frustrating the enemy’s plans.

But LongShot could change everything.

Like DARPA’s Gremlin drones that are currently under development, the LongShot program is hoped to result in an unmanned drone that can help keep valuable aircraft and their pilots out of harm’s way. This forms part of the US military’s strategy to supplement its fleets of combat aircraft with unmanned systems, with the Gremlin drone, which is designed to carry a suite of sensors, inching closer to airborne launches and retrieval after several years testing.

“The LongShot program changes the paradigm of air combat operations by demonstrating an unmanned, air-launched vehicle capable of employing current and advanced air-to-air weapons,” said DARPA program manager Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun. “LongShot will disrupt traditional incremental weapon improvements by providing an alternative means of generating combat capability.”

Under the LongShot program, DARPA plans to explore multimodal propulsion, which the organization sees as key to the drone’s concept of operations.

“An air system using multi-modal propulsion could capitalize upon a slower speed, higher fuel-efficient air vehicle for ingress, while retaining highly energetic air-to-air missiles for endgame target engagement,” the Defense Department stated in fiscal 2021 budget material. That way, the UAV gets the benefit of being able to traverse longer ranges, while the weapons it launches have a higher probability of destroying their intended targets.

DARPA started the LongShot program in FY21, requesting $22 million to begin conceptual design work.

According to budget documents, the LongShot UAV could be either launched from an external hardpoint on a fighter or the internal bay on a bomber. Both the Air Force and Navy could be potential future customers.

If LongShot’s development is successful, the weapon could “significantly” extend the range at which a manned aircraft can engage a target while also reducing the risk to human pilots, DARPA stated in a news release.

In later phases of the program, LongShot will construct and fly a full-scale air-launched demonstration system capable of controlled flight, before, during, and after weapon ejection under operational conditions.

Royal Flying Corps (RFC) / Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) / Royal Air Force (RAF)

British military aviation has its roots in the Royal Engineers, which established a balloon corps in 1908. In May 1912, the Royal Flying Corps was established with a military wing, which worked for the army; a naval wing for operations with the fleet; the Central Flying School for instructional purposes; a repair depot called the Royal Aircraft Factory; and a reserve.

A form of interservice rivalry developed almost at once between the military and naval wings, and shortly before the declaration of war, in the summer of 1914, the naval wing broke away to become the Royal Naval Air Service.

When war was declared, the RFC deployed with the British Expeditionary Force; an aircraft park and four squadrons (Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5), each equipped with the entire mixed bag of aircraft then in the British inventory. After a series of moves necessitated by the initial British retreat, headquarters in France was established at Saint Omer, where it remained for most of the war. The first field commander of the RFC was Brigadier General David Henderson. Henderson would shortly return to England, though, leaving command in the field to Hugh Montague ‘Boom’ Trenchard.

Initially, each RFC unit acted as something of a self-contained air force, performing the complete range of activities, which at the time consisted primarily of reconnaissance duties with the occasional bombing mission. As the war progressed, the force grew in number, and by 1916 squadrons began to specialize either as fighter, bombing, or reconnaissance units, the latter role being further divided into photographic and artillery functions. As a consequence of specialization, the practice of units having a multiplicity of types was abandoned, and squadrons started to become known not only by their role but also by what type of equipment they possessed. Balloon companies using tethered observation balloons as artillery spotters began appearing in British service in 1915 and remained a fixture on the Western Front throughout the war.

Technological advances were rapid during the war, and keeping up with the enemy in the design and deployment of new types was a constant problem. The British sometimes suffered severely as a result. When the Germans were first to develop an interrupter gear — allowing a machine gun to fire through the propeller arc — the RFC found itself on the receiving end of the ‘Fokker scourge.’ During the spring of 1917 the problem reached a crisis. During the Battle of the Somme, the previous autumn, the Luftstreitkräfte (Air Service) had organized its single-seat fighter force into heterogeneous jagdstaffeln (fighter squadrons) and reequipped with the Albatros D.I and D.II. The type had been refined over the winter into the D.III.

The RFC, however, had lagged in the introduction of new types and went into the spring with the same complement of tired aircraft,mostly BE 2s that had been in use for the last two years. It paid a high price – the highest number of casualties in a single month it would suffer during its existence – a month that went down in history as ‘bloody April.’

Technological advantage was not the only factor in these losses; doctrine also played a part. Throughout the war, Trenchard followed an offensive policy. This action has attracted its share of criticism, but faced with German occupation of the high ground and the insatiable intelligence needs of the army, often only satisfied by aerial reconnaissance, the RFC seems to have had little choice but to press on with what it had.

The situation improved over the summer of 1917 with the introduction of the Sopwith Camel, the SE 5/5a, the de Havilland D.H. 4, and the Bristol Fighter; the SE 5/5a was the best design to emerge from the Royal Aircraft Factory during the war, the other three, of course, being the products of private firms. From that point on, technology remained fairly balanced, and casualties returned to a manageable level until spiking again in September 1918 following the German introduction of the BMW-powered Fokker D.VII.

The Royal Flying Corps did not operate exclusively on the Western Front, however. After some initial jurisdictional feuding with the RNAS, the RFC had assumed responsibility for the aerial home defense of Great Britain, thereafter regularly scrambling a hodgepodge of mostly second-line equipment in response to Zeppelin and Gotha attacks.

Outside of England and France, units also served in Egypt and Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Russia, providing support to British army operations in those theaters.

The Royal Naval Air Service mission was primarily, if not exclusively, the support of British maritime endeavors. This covered a wide range of activities, from antisubmarine patrols and general reconnaissance duties in connection with the fleet, to bombing missions against submarine pens and Zeppelin bases. To fulfill these missions, the RNAS developed a varied inventory that included floatplanes, flying boats, the first experimental torpedo-bombers, and lighter-than-air airships. Ships were also adapted to work with aircraft, leading to the balloon ship (which extended the effective range of vision of the group to which the balloon vessel was attached), the crane-equipped seaplane carrier, and, eventually, to the first flight-deck aircraft carriers.

In addition to new equipment, innovative techniques were also developed for work over the water, one of the most useful to the prosecution of the war being the so-called spider web. The spider web was an invisible grid over the English Channel and North Sea that provided an organized method for aircraft to use in searching for underwater mines and U-boats. Provision for aerial escort as part of the convoy scheme also contributed to the safety of Allied shipping as it crossed the Atlantic to and from North America.

As mentioned, the RNAS did not operate exclusively over the water. Throughout the war, naval units were deployed for land-based operations on the Western Front.And among the Allied forces, the RNAS could take credit for the first tentative attempts at strategic bombing. In the summer of 1916, the RNAS organized No. 3 Wing and equipped the unit with Sopwith 11/2 Strutters and Breguet bombers with the aim of attacking targets inside Germany. The group was stationed at Luxeuil, near Nancy, putting it within reach of manufacturing plants in the Saar River Valley. Bad weather – the perpetual enemy of aerial operations – kept No. 3 Wing grounded throughout much of its life, but its first – and most memorable – raid took place on 12 October 1916 when it attacked the Mauser Works at Oberndorf. The raid was a truly international operation involving not only the British naval unit but also French bombers and an escort of Nieuport fighters provided by the U.S. volunteers of the Lafayette Escadrille. By spring, however, the lackluster results achieved led to the breakup of the group and the reassignment of its crews to other units, many going to the navy’s single-seat squadrons up near the channel coast. There, some pilots, such as Canadian ace Raymond Collishaw, would go on to great success flying the Sopwith Pup, Triplane, and later the immortal Camel, supplementing the RFC in support of army operations.

Relations between the two British aviation services were always somewhat tense, accusations of various intrigues going in both directions. The rivalry heightened to the point that a government committee merged the RFC and RNAS into the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918.

Trenchard was ordered to run the Independent Force and General John Salmond became the RAF’s first field commander. There is little evidence to indicate that a true merger of the two services really took place prior to the Armistice, however. There was a new ‘RAF blue’ uniform issued, but not many people are seen wearing it in wartime photos,most clinging not only to the old uniform but also to the practices and brief traditions of their earlier branch. Previously, naval squadrons were renumbered, each having ‘200’ added to its original designation (e.g.,Naval Eight became No. 208 Squadron,RAF), and a few swaps of personnel were effected, probably the most notable being the transfer of RNAS ace Roderick Dallas to the command of No. 40 Squadron, an old RFC fighter unit. But these changes were largely cosmetic, and the real birth of the Royal Air Force is more likely found in the postwar struggles to remain funded and stay alive, all taking place under the stewardship of Trenchard. The fruits of his labor became apparent in 1940 when the RAF rose to the Nazi threat and achieved its finest hour during the Battle of Britain.