1845: Austria Drops Balloon Bombs on Venice

In July 1849, in the first aerial bombardment in history, the Austrians launched an aerial attack on the beseiged Venice, in the Republic of San Marco. They released balloons carrying, it was claimed, 30lb bombs. According to a report in the Scientific American of the previous March from Vienna, the intention of the Austrians had been to launch five balloons 23 feet in diameter each carrying 5 bombs which were to be ignited by means of electromagnetism, using a long copper wire connected to a large galvanic battery on the shore. Though reports of the actual raid conflict in that it is not clear whether 2 or 20 balloons took part in the raid, none suggest that this system was employed, but they do not dispute that the attack was largely unsuccessful, and Venice did not surrender to the Austrian Empire until August 27 1849.

On Aug. 22, 1849, Austria launched a pilotless balloon bomb attack against Venice. The attack caused little damaged, but Venice surrendered two days later.

The Republic of Venice had been independent for more than 1,000 years before it was conquered in 1797 by Napoleon, who ceded it to Austria later that year. In 1848, a year during which revolutions swept through Europe, Daniele Manin led a revolt against Austrian rule, declaring Venice to be a republic.

The Austrians retaliated by blockading Venice, causing starvation, disease and hunger. “Although Austrian Field Marshall von Radetsky beleaguered the city by land and sea, his siege artillery couldn’t get close enough to bear fire on the whole city because of its formidable coastal defenses and shallow Lagoons,” according to the 2005 documentary “On a Wind and a Prayer.”

A young Austrian artillery lieutenant named Franz von Uchatius hatched the idea of launching balloons carrying explosives over Venice. The first attempt, carried out on July 12, 1849, failed because the wind was not in Austria’s favor.

Time magazine provided an account from one eyewitness: “The balloons appeared to rise to about 4,500 ft. Then they exploded in midair or fell into the water, or, blown by a sudden southeast wind, sped over the city and dropped on the besiegers. Venetians, abandoning their homes, crowded into the streets and squares to enjoy the strange spectacle. … When a cloud of smoke appeared in the air to make an explosion, all clapped and shouted. Applause was greatest when the balloons blew over the Austrian forces and exploded, and in such cases the Venetians added cries of ‘Bravo!’ and ‘Good appetite!’”

In the second attempt, on Aug. 22, the balloons, measuring 5.7 meters in diameter and using “charcoal and greasy cotton as a continuous combustion source,” were released from a “stable platform at sea,” according to the documentary.

According to Monash University professor Russell Naughton, about 200 of balloons, carrying 33 pounds of explosives and armed with half-hour time fuses- they are also said to have used fuses electrically activated via signals fed up trailing copper wires, were launched into Venice that day. The balloons caused minimal damage to Venice and some even blew back towards the Austrians.

“On a Wind and a Prayer,”  however, claims that the balloons did have a substantial psychological effect. Whether out of balloon-related fear or due to exhaustion and starvation, the Venetians would surrender just two days later.

Scientific American, March 1849 “The Presse, of Vienna, Austria, has the following: ‘Venice is to be bombarded by balloons, as the lagunes prevent the approaching of artillery. Five balloons, each twenty-three feet in diameter, are in construction at Treviso. In a favorable wind the balloons will be launched and directed as near to Venice as possible, and on their being brought to vertical positions over the town, they will be fired by electro magnetism by means of a long isolated copper wire with a large galvanic battery placed on the shore. The bomb falls perpendicularly, and explodes on reaching the ground.”

Venice and the Revolution of 1848-49

The first air bomb: Venice, 15 July 1849


Conflict over the Bay, 1943

Gradually the boffins and engineers had improved the lot of the air crews by developing ASV radar, more reliable depth charges, anti-sub bombs and acoustic torpedoes, while they now had better aircraft. The fact that Dönitz had now effectively withdrawn from engaging in the mighty convoy battles of the North Atlantic, was as much due to the losses inflicted on his boats, as the losses, also in 1943, of boats traversing the Bay of Biscay.

As 1943 got underway for 19 Group, so the actions increased week after week. Space does not provide as much detail of these actions as described in previous chapters, but in my book Conflict over the Bay (Grub Street, 1999) full coverage is given in a blow-by-blow account.

In the early months of 1943, German tactics had not yet changed. The Leigh Light had prevented U-boat commanders crossing the Bay at night, and they were forced to travel for the most part on the surface, especially if their batteries need to be recharged and the boat’s fresh air supply replenished. This made them vulnerable as ASV could pick them up more easily.

By May U-boat captains had been ordered to remain on the surface and fight back, their chances, Dönitz believed, would be better if they deflected an aircraft’s approach in the face of gunfire at low level – and the big Sunderlands and Liberators particularly, offered a huge target for gunners who held their nerve. As mentioned earlier, Coastal Command’s counter to this was to circle some way off, and either call up other aircraft in the vicinity in order to make a co-ordinated attack from different angles, thereby dividing the defensive fire, or, if in luck, one of the Navy’s anti-sub escort groups might not be too far away and could be homed in.

The 2nd Escort (or Support) Group in particular seemed to be able to roam the outer Bay areas with impunity, and was constantly on the alert for U-boats, coming or going. Captain F. J. Walker CB DSO*** RN, with five sloops, would be responsible for a number of U-boats attacked, sunk and damaged. Sadly he died in July 1944, aged forty-eight, from cerebral thrombosis, brought on by overwork and exhaustion. He lost a son serving aboard a submarine in the Mediterranean in August 1943.

By this time too, the USAAF had joined the fray, sending Liberator squadrons to England where they, like the Iceland-based USN units, came under Coastal Command control, joining the Battle of the Bay. Their first success came on 20 February, First Lieutenant Wayne Johnson of 1 Squadron USAAF damaging U-211.

Six days later one of Coastal’s best pilots, Squadron Leader P. J. Cundy, flying with 224 Squadron (Liberators), damaged U-508. He had already flown many sorties with 53 and 120 Squadrons and his experience was about to pay dividends. Wellingtons were still being used by 19 Group, and so too were Whitleys of No.10 OTU, released by Bomber Command in order to help support the group. On 22 March one 10 OTU crew damaged U-665. Quite a few boats were damaged in these early months, but some were also sunk. Pilot Officer J. B. Stark of 58 Squadron put his Halifax over U-528 on 11 May and his depth charges sent it to the bottom. Four days later, Wing Commander W. E. Oulton DFC, CO of the same squadron, sank U- 266. The next day, the 16th, Flying Officer A. J. W. Birch made it three for 58 by sinking U-463 – a tanker supply boat.

Another new innovation by the Germans, now that they were beginning to stay up and fight, was the introduction of flak boats, carrying extra defensive armament. They were intended to be ‘flak traps’ to surprise and destroy attacking aircraft. One was U-441. Most U-boats encountered were the Type VIIC and it was a few of this type that were converted (others being U-211, 256, 263, 271, 621 and 953). Sailing for her first mission in her new role on 22 May, U-441 was found by a Sunderland of 228 Squadron, piloted by Flying Officer H. J. H. Debnam. He attacked in the face of extreme anti-aircraft fire and, although he placed his depth charges around the sub, the boat’s gunners were on target and the flying boat dived into the sea with the loss of all on board. However, U-441 had been damaged sufficiently, and sustained crew casualties, for it to be forced to return to base for repair.

On the last day of May, Wilfred Oulton again encountered a U-boat, and began stalking it during an approach through cloud. Finally diving, he made a good straddle, leaving the boat in obvious difficulty and a second attack was made, after which the boat was seen to be trailing oil. Oulton kept the sub under observation while calling up another 58 Squadron aircraft, flown by Pilot Officer E. L. Hartley, but his charges fell short. A Sunderland of 10 RAAF Squadron was next on the scene and after two attacks the boat stopped and began to sink, with men appearing on deck in life-jackets. Another Sunderland arrived, from 228 Squadron, and made an immediate attack, bodies being seen thrown into the air as its charges exploded about the vessel. Oulton later received the DSO, and the two Sunderland captains received DFCs. There were no survivors from U-563.

“Biscay Excursion”
In March 1942, 236 Squadron RAF received the Bristol Beaufighter MkI.At first the squadron was used for shipping reconnaissance and escort duties, before in July it began operations against enemy shipping off the Dutch coast. At the same time detachments operated over the Bay of Biscay to protect anti-submarine aircraft against German attack.
David Pentland Art

These large four-engined aircraft were not the only aircraft operating over the Bay in 1943. The Germans had Junkers 88C fighters on the French coast and often made forays into the Bay to attack the RAF aircraft. It is amazing that the Germans did not make more of this, but fortunately they did not, although a number of running air battles between them did take place, and Coastal aircraft were lost. As a counter, the RAF sent Beaufighters out, hopefully to engage these Ju88s, but they also searched for U-boats. No. 236 Squadron also carried rockets and, on 1 June, Flying Officer M. C. Bateman found U-418 which he attacked and sank with his RPs. As these were still on Coastal’s secret list, Mark Bateman had to report sinking the sub with depth charges. He was awarded the DFC, although no mention of this attack was mentioned in his citation.

Another fight-it-out duel on the night of 13/14 June had U-564 shooting down a 228 Squadron Sunderland, from which nobody survived. The boat was damaged, however, and limped away, only to be located the next day by a Whitley of 10 OTU, piloted by Sergeant A. J. Benson RAAF. Buzz Benson shadowed the sub, and another boat (U-185) that had suddenly appeared to help, while carrying out homing procedure but was then given permission to make an attack. Benson selected U- 564 and also met gunfire, but his depth charges went down and finished her off. Benson’s Whitley was badly hit, with his hydraulics knocked out and one engine giving problems. He radioed base saying he was heading home but did not make it. He and his crew survived a ditching and were fortunate enough to be rescued by a French fishing boat, but when they suggested to the skipper that he take them to England, he had to refuse, as his family would suffer if the Germans discovered what he had done. Thus Benson and his crew were taken to a French port and ended up as prisoners, although he later heard he had been awarded the DFM and promoted to warrant officer. Survivors from U-564 were taken aboard U-185 although twenty-nine of them had been lost. U-564 had been a successful boat, having been credited with sinking at least nineteen ships and damaging others.

A Wellington of 172 Squadron sank U-126 on 3 July (Flight Sergeant A. Coumbis, who had damaged U-566 in April), while Peter Cundy of 224 sank U-628 on the same day. On board his Liberator was Lieutenant Colonel Farrant, an army officer helping to promote the use of a new anti-submarine bomb. These were called Hedgehog bombs, a 35lb device with a hollow charge. With enormous luck they found a surfaced U-boat and Cundy went in dropping depth charges and eighteen of these small bombs, that needed a direct hit to be effective. The boat engaged the approaching Liberator and did score some hits while the Lib’s gunners also hit the boat, knocking one man into the sea. In the first attack one depth charge actually bounced off the conning tower and in the second run more charges straddled the vessel. As the water cleared, several men could be seen in the water, and the Colonel was seen taking off his Mae West prior to throwing it down to the ‘poor devils’. He was, however, persuaded not to, as there might be a chance it might be needed for ‘the poor devils up here’. Cundy, who got home on three engines, received the DSO.

Despite the Germans staying up to fight, July was proving a successful month as far as kills were concerned. On the 7th one pilot, Flying Officer J. A. Cruickshank of 210 Squadron, damaged U-267. It would not be his last contact with a U-boat.

Terry Bulloch was now in 19 Group, flying with 224 Squadron. He had lost none of his skill and on 8 July sank U-514. He had been given something of a roving commission to fly where and when he wanted, so now flew a Liberator equipped with rocket projectiles which he was testing. On board he had Flight Lieutenant C. V. T. Campbell, an armament specialist, who just happened to spot the U-boat in amongst a group of Spanish fishing boats. Turning towards it, Bulloch could see half a dozen men on the conning tower and fired a pair of RPs at 800 feet distance, two more at 600 and then four from 500 feet, from a height of 500 feet. The boat disappeared, but came up again stern first at about a 20-degree angle. Not in the official report was that Bulloch also carried an acoustic torpedo, which he dropped as well, plus a couple of depth charges for good measure. Whatever got the sub, it was fatal and U-504, set for South African waters, was destroyed.

U-441, the converted flak boat, was back out after being damaged on 24 May, but it did not fare any better this time. She was found by Beaufighters of 248 Squadron on the 12th, and not some large Coastal aircraft that she could trap. The Beaus worked her over with their 20mm cannon, felling some of the crew who were on deck. After several strafing runs the boat went down, badly damaged, to return to home port once more. Ten of her crew had been killed and thirteen more wounded, including her captain. The flak-trap did not seem to be working.

Junkers Ju-88C-6 F8+BX, 13.KG40 Battle over the Biscay

No. 19 Group were still using their patrol areas; Musketry was mentioned previously. The areas did alter slightly from time to time, and other areas, named Derange, Seaslug and Percussion were also being used. Between 14 and 27 June patrols in Musketry had sunk one sub and damaged another, while outside them one had been sunk and five damaged. In July Musketry was extended, and within it Coastal sank seven and damaged two; outside it, four more were sunk and another damaged.

Another case where U-boat and aircraft were lost together came on 24 July. Flying Officer W. H. T. Jennings, 172 Squadron, was guided to a surfaced U-boat by his radar man and went in for an attack. The boat’s gunners opened up, hitting the Wellington and presumably killed or wounded the two pilots, for although the depth charges were released, the Wimpy ploughed right into the sub and blew up. Only the rear gunner, Sergeant A. A. Turner, survived. One charge had landed on the boat’s deck and exploded when the crew pushed it overboard. A Wellington of 547 Squadron arrived and attacked the crippled boat, its crew abandoning it. A RN destroyer later picked up thirty-seven Germans, but not, however, its captain, and, hearing shouts from the rear gunner some way off, found him too. Turner had been involved in two other damaging attacks earlier in the year, with other pilots.

Coastal Command HQ still had a fair idea where the U-boats were from the code breakers, but they needed to be on the surface if they were to be located by aircraft. One of the most dramatic events during this period occurred on 30 July. By this time the month had seen five sinkings, one by Flying Officer R. V. Sweeny, an American with 224 Squadron, flying with Pete Cundy’s crew. In company with another Liberator, from 4 Squadron USAAF, U-404 had been sunk on the 28th. The American B-24 had been damaged by the boat’s fire. Bobby Sweeney had been adjutant of the first American Eagle Squadron, his brother Charles having been the inspiration behind the Eagle Squadrons.

On the 30th, U-461, a type IV supply boat, was seen by Flight Lieutenant D. Marrows and his 461 Sunderland crew. By a strange coincidence, the aircraft letter was ‘U’, so it was U-461 meeting 461/U. U-boats were still making crossings of the Bay in groups for mutual protection, and the Marrows’ crew spotted three of them shortly before noon. Other aircraft had found them already, a Halifax from 502 Squadron coming over, and an American B-24, both of which were circling. As the B-24 made a move towards the boats – U-461, U-462 (another supply boat, a Type XI, and U-504, a Type IXC) – the B-24 met the full force of the boats’ gunners. This gave Marrows an opportunity to nip in, managing to straddle U-461 to good effect. Meantime, his gunners blazed away at the other two boats. As the water cleared, survivors could be seen in the water, and a dinghy was dropped, some sailors being seen to get into it. With one remaining charge on board Marrows went for another sub but gunfire made him break away after hits caught the Sunderland.

In the Halifax, Flying Officer August van Rossum, a Dutch pilot in the RAF, had seen the sloops of the 2nd Escort Group heading for the U-boats, and when he arrived, all three aircraft began making attacks, and even another Liberator, from 53 Squadron, joined in, but was hit by flak and headed off. By now the gunfire from the U-boats was making it necessary to bomb them from height, Van Rossum putting a bomb close to the stern of U-462, but he could also see that the U-boat attacked by the Sunderland was being abandoned. Just then shells from the approaching sloops began to explode near the subs. U-504, attacked by Rossum, limped away and began to dive, but the sloops harried her and depth charges finished her off.

On the first day of August, two Sunderlands, one from 10 RAAF, the other from 228 Squadron, sank two U-boats, U-454 and U-383, while on Musketry patrol but the Australian crew were shot down, just six of them being rescued by a sloop, and 228’s machine had also to limp back home, damaged ailerons making it impossible to turn. Everything was being thrown into the Bay battles, even a twin-engined Hampden of 405 RCAF Squadron, that, on the 2nd, assisted a US Liberator of 1 Squadron to sink U-706 in Musketry. This same day U-106 was destroyed by a 228 Sunderland flown by Flying Officer R. D. Hanbury, shared with a 461 Sunderland. Gunners on the boat continued to fight back even as their comrades were taking to dinghies, but then the sub blew up. Thirty-seven of its crew were picked up by a sloop.

A further U-boat group of three was spotted by the crew of a Wellington of 547 Squadron, flown by Pilot Officer J. W. Hermiston RCAF, on the 2nd. They were on their return to base when the airman manning the front gun saw the wake of the first boat. Informing his skipper, he was instructed to take photographs and then open fire when in range. Knowing they would meet the combined fire of the boats, Hermiston decided to drop an anti-sub bomb from 2,000 feet. Sergeant W. Owens, manning the gun, opened accurate fire at the boat, as the others began to close up. Hermiston then decided to drop depth charges, lowering to fifty feet to do so, but they overshot. Bill Owens opened up on other runs, but then all three boats went under. U-218 had been their main target and, while undamaged, Owen had caused so many casualties that she had to abort her mission to Trinidad and return to Brest.

The Germans now countermanded the order to remain on the surface and fight, for this had obviously caused considerable losses. A few still did stay up, but these were generally cases where the boat was surprised and it was too late to dive safely. Those encounters on 2 August were the last for the month, and there were only two in September, a Wellington of 407 Squadron RCAF sinking U-669 on the 7th and a Halifax of 58 Squadron destroying U-221 on the 27th. However, in this attack Flying Officer E. L. Hartley and crew, which included their Station Commander, Group Captain R. C. Mead, was hit by flak as he went in, forcing Hartley to ditch. Two men did not survive the crash, and the others were not rescued for eleven days by the Royal Navy. They had not been searching for them and it was pure luck that they saw their signal flares.

November saw just three successful attacks with two boats sunk and one damaged and just one sunk in December. It had been a momentous year and desperate summer but, with the losses in the North Atlantic, the U-boat arm was all but smashed. However, with the coming invasion, the U-boats and 19 Group, would have one last encounter.

S-500 Prometey [55R6M Triumfator M]

When the first reliable news about the development of the fifth-generation air defense system surfaced in 2009, the S-500 Prometey was supposed to be introduced in 2012. The S-500 is under development by the Almaz-Antey Air Defence Concern, initially planned to be in production in 2014 it is currently targeting 2020 for deployment. With its characteristics it will be very similar to the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.

In contrast to the S-400, whose primary purpose was air defense, the S-500 is intended to be a full-fledged anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. Rather than succeeding the S-400, it is intended to work in conjunction with it. While the S-400 is designed to defend against short- and medium-range missiles, the S-500 is designed to combat intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In 2012, the system had completed the technical design phase and the estimated timeframe for its deployment was reported to be 2019-20.

The exact specifications of the new airspace defense system remain classified, and the most detailed comment to date on the design philosophy and implementation have been observations made by Russian defense and industry officials in interviews. According to them, the S-500 is derived from the existing S-400 Triumf, but reduced in dimensions and more power-efficient. The choice of vehicles intended to carry the S-500 launchers, radars, command posts, and other electronic equipment suggests a highly mobile and survivable system, built for “hide, shoot and scoot” operations.

Designed to intercept ballistic missiles at a height of up to 200 kilometers and a maximum range of 600 kilometers, the system is expected to be able to shoot down up to ten incoming ballistic missiles simultaneously. It also has an extended radar range compared to the S-400. Russia’s Air Force Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev claimed that the S-500 will also have a response time of about three to four seconds, which is considerably shorter than the S-400, which is rated at nine to ten seconds. 

New S-500 Missiles.

What remains a source of speculation, however, is the kind of interception the S-500 missiles will use. One option is a nuclear blast because it can destroy “the entire cloud of incoming warheads with no need to determine true threats from dummies.” Most of the missiles in the S-300 and S-400 systems use high-explosive fragmentation warheads. Russia, however, is working on two new missiles that have been designed for the S-500 (and the S-400): the 77N6-N and the 77N6-N1. They will be the first Russian missiles with inert warheads, which can destroy nuclear warheads by hitting them with precision at hypersonic speed (7-km per second). This would far outmatch even the American SM-3 block IIA missile, which is also currently under development and is beingdeployed from 2018 onwards. The Block II has a projected maximum speed of roughly 4.5-km per second and enhanced capability to address intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and a limited capability to address ICBMs. However, it is not clear when the 77N6-N and the 77N6-N1 may enter service, given that facilities for their production are still in construction. 

The main components of the S-500 will be:

  • launch vehicle 77P6, based on the BAZ-69096 10×10 truck
  • command posts 55K6MA and 85Zh6-2 on BAZ-69092-12 6×6
  • acquisition and battle management radar 91N6A(M), a modification of the 91N6 (Big Bird) towed by the BAZ-6403.01 8×8 tractor
  • 96L6-TsP acquisition radar, an upgraded version of the 96L6 (Cheese Board) on BAZ-69096 10×10
  • multimode engagement radar 76T6 on BAZ-6909-022 8×8
  • ABM engagement radar 77T6 on BAZ-69096 10×10

Initially, two large factories in Kirov and Nizhniy Novgorod, the cost of which was estimated at 81 billion rubles, were supposed to start production of 77N6N and 77N6-N1 missiles “at the beginning of 2014.” Latest reports suggest that the Kirov facility began production at the end of 2015, with full capacity utilization available in 2017. The Nizhniy Novgorod facility was finished in 2016 and employ 3,500 people.

The absence of more advanced missiles in general is one of the major obstacles to fully equipping the VKO with modern systems. The missile shortage worsened after the production of the old S-300 was stopped completely, even for exports. This has also reflected workforce aging and the low replacement rates of production equipment. In 2008, Almaz-Antey agreed with the Defense Ministry on a plan for the company’s modernization, but, due to the financial crisis, those intentions never materialized. It took an intensive campaign calling for overhaul and refurbishment to induce the presidential administration to act. In February 2012, President Putin signed a Federal Targeted Program for the development of the defense industry to 2020, under which three trillion rubles were promised to the military-industrial complex for the modernization of its production facilities.

Bottlenecks in missile production could cause further delay in the introduction of the S-500. The S-400 is already in operation and, therefore, any further delays in 40N6 missile production will set upgrades back still further. Unlike the S-400, the S-500 cannot employ missiles used in the S-300 family, which means that the range of the missiles suitable for the system is severely limited. There are already signs that additional delays are to be expected. At first, the State Armament Program 2011-20 projected purchases of 10 battalions of the S-500.

At the end of 2013, the Commander of the VKO expected five batteries to be delivered by 2020, with first batches arriving in “several years.”

The results of throwing more money at the defense industry remain to be seen. As defense analyst Aleksandr Konovalov put it:

The country’s leadership looks at the defense sector like a Coke machine. Put money in and get a bottle. Nothing is that simple with the domestic military-industrial complex, and investing a lot of money doesn’t guarantee getting production precisely on time. And the discussion about the S-500 is questionable; it’s possible it doesn’t even exist in drawings.

Whether or not the system really exists and regardless of what its real capabilities are if it does, Russian senior officers are publicly confident about its performance, especially vis-a-vis American competitors. Thus, the former Commander of the VKO, Colonel General Oleg Ostapenko, claimed in 2012 that “the S-500 will be better than any similar U. S. system. The Americans have so far only hyped them up in the electronic media, but we already in effect have a real missile.” Declining to give the specifications and performance characteristics of the missile for the S-500, he said “until it flies, we do not talk about these things.”

At Sea.

Russia is also working on naval versions of the S-400 and S-500, but their deployment seems also to be unlikely in the near future. According to a source from the military-industrial complex, the S-400F, the naval version of the S-400, was “practically ready” in 2012, but no information about its commissioning has yet appeared in open sources. The carriers of the systems were supposed to be the three mothballed nuclear-powered Kirov-class missile cruisers (the Admiral Nakhimov, Admiral Lazarev, and Admiral Ushakov), with 2020 given as the year of their reintroduction into service. The naval version is the likely armament for the new Lider-class air-defense destroyers due to enter service in 2023–25

After years of delays, the refit of the Admiral Nakhimov finally began at the beginning of 2014. The cruiser will be equipped with P-800 Oniks (SS-N-26) supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, and the S-400 Triumf, along with other weapon systems designed to shoot down missiles and aircraft approaching the ship. The refit should be completed in 2018. The other missile cruisers, including the Pyotr Velikiy, the only Kirov-class ship active in service, are expected to be modernized as well, but no timeframes have been announced.

In March 2013, the Navy reportedly decided to heavily modernize antisubmarine ships of the Project 1155 Fregat (NATO codename Udaloy) class and equip them with the Redut air defense system with interceptors from the S-400. A representative from the Northern Shipyards design bureau, which built the Project 1155 vessels and is among the front runners in the competition for modernization of Project 1155, said that:

the first modernized big antisubmarine ship will appear not earlier than in 2016: development of the lead project will take about 18 months. After that the technical project of modernization will be retrofitted for 2 to 4 years more. 

In February 2013, the Russian Navy approved a preliminary design for the largest naval ship to be built since 1989. According to the newspaper, Izvestia, the new ship will be armed with anti-ship missiles, cruise missiles, air defense and ballistic defense systems, including the S-500. However, no final decision about its construction has been made, and it will take 2 to 3 years just to prepare technical documentation. Finally, the official designation for the naval version of the S-500 does not appear to have been made known publicly.


Over the last 8 years, Russia has significantly modernized its air defense systems, expanding them geographically and making them more versatile, mobile, and effective. The interceptors introduced in this period, mainly on the S-400 platform, give Russia the capability to counter a wide range of missile threats up to and including IRBMs in some of the most important and/or vulnerable parts of its territory.

Further improvement and geographical expansion of air defense capabilities will depend on the ability of arms manufacturers to deal with increased demands of the State Armament Program. One of the main bottlenecks-the design, production, and troubleshooting of the newest long-range interceptors-significantly restricts the operational range of the S-400 by denying it the intended long-range interceptors, and will in all probability cause still further substantial delays in introducing the S-500. The commissioning of this system before 2020 is unlikely.

If published figures are to be believed, the S-400 represents the apex of current air defense capabilities, and is in many respects more capable than the U. S. Patriot series. However, comparisons with THAAD and SM-3 missiles could be misleading, as these systems were developed solely for the purpose of missile defense and their design follows an entirely different philosophy. Russia’s goal is to protect its territory from within its borders, using a multilayered shield of several complementary systems, including, but not limited to, the S-400 and the S-500. The United States is focusing heavily on countering ballistic missiles in various stages of their flight, which requires a missile defense shield of global reach and presence.

Transport Aircraft WWII

Aircraft the primary purpose of which is to transport personnel and supplies. Although fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft played major roles in World War I, the technology of the time did not allow aircraft to play a meaningful role in transporting troops and supplies. By the early 1930s, however, improvements in aircraft design and, more important, aircraft engines had resulted in the emergence of civil aircraft, such as the Douglas DC-3, for commercial passenger service. Military planners were quick to note these developments, which raised the prospect of rapidly deploying large numbers of men and a large amount of supplies to the battle zone, including behind enemy lines. By the outbreak of World War II, most of the powers that would become involved in the war had either already developed military variants of these civil aircraft or had introduced specially designed military transport aircraft.

Two main types of transport aircraft were used during the war: large multiengine, land-based aircraft or flying boats designed to move many troops or supplies (some of these also served in bombing and reconnaissance roles); and assault or transport gliders designed to be towed, then released, so they could glide silently to a landing behind enemy lines.

Similarly, the structure of the maintenance, supply, distribution, and data systems that support military forces needs to adjust to the operating patterns and performance of the supported force. Air forces operate from long distances, often from sanctuaries well outside the area of operations; the ability to connect regularly and efficiently to a centralized logistical system on virtually an hourly basis changes the materials and the skills required at each location for the conduct of operations. Armies and navies, in contrast, are typically not so well connected to global air transportation nets and thus require different and more extensive sets of on hand machinery, materials, and skills to manufacture and repair critical parts.

Global air transportation is the least heralded element in air warfare. Unrecognized by the early air warfare thinkers-who wrote extensively about bomber, pursuit, and observation tasks-military airlift evolved from an appreciation for the growing utility of civil aviation fleets; civilian aircraft were embraced to do similar tasks in a military situation. From the World War II regional experience of flying the Hump, to the Berlin Airlift, to Operation NICKEL GRASS (the strategic resupply of Israeli forces in 1973), to the deployment and redeployment of warfighting and peacekeeping forces around the world, air transportation fleets have become the sine qua non of conflict management. The Berlin Airlift is, arguably, the twentieth century’s premier example of military art at its highest level of accomplishment-no “combat” casualties, yet the allied powers achieved their strategic goals, preserved the political status of, and access to, Berlin, and set the tone for the next fifty years of European political and military history. Many nations have found the political and economic tools to integrate military and civilian air transportation into global strategic lift capability.

The following are the most significant aircraft employed primarily for transport by both sides during World War II.


Designed originally in 1930 as a three-engine passenger carrier for Deutsche Lufthansa, the Junkers Ju-52/3m served as the primary transport aircraft of the German army in World War II. Including the approximately 200 civil models constructed prior to the war, a total of 4,800 Ju-52/3ms were built by the end of 1944. It made its military debut as a bomber and troop transport during the Spanish Civil War. Successive versions of the Ju-52/3m incorporated more-powerful engines that provided greater load capacity (approximately twice its empty weight of 12,600-14,300 lb) and interchangeable wheel, ski, or float landing gear that allowed it to operate in a variety of conditions. In addition to its transport duties, it served as a bomber, air ambulance, glider tug, and paratrooper transport.

Intended as a replacement for the Ju-52/3m, the Junkers Ju-252 Herkules relied on the same three-engine configuration as the Ju-52/3m but featured improved interior and exterior designs and more powerful engines, which not only made it faster and capable of bearing heavier loads but also gave it a range as much as twice that of the Ju-52/3m. Unfortunately for Germany, shortages of resources and manpower forced the Luftwaffe to limit production of the all-metal Ju-252 to just 15 aircraft. A mixed-wood and tube-steel version, the Ju- 352 entered service in 1944, but it came too late in the war to make a difference. Just 45 of the Ju-352s were constructed.

Originally designed for Deutsche Lufthansa to serve as a trans-Atlantic flying boat, the six-engine Blohm und Voss Bv- 222 Viking was the largest flying boat, and the largest aircraft of any kind, to serve in World War II. Although only 13 were produced, the Bv-222, which could carry up to 110 troops in addition to its 11-man crew, played an important role in transporting troops in the Mediterranean and North African Campaigns.

Germany employed three types of gliders as transports during World War II: the DFS-230, the Gotha Go-242, and the Messerschmitt Me-321 Gigant. Entering service in 1938, the DFS 230 could carry 8 airborne troops and proved to be the standard assault glider used by the Germany army during the war, with approximately 1,500 being constructed. Introduced in late 1941, the Gotha Go-242 could carry up to 23 airborne troops or the equivalent weight in supplies. As one of the largest aircraft of the war, the Messerschmitt Me- 321 Gigant was capable of carrying up to 120 troops, 21,500 lb of freight, or 60 wounded soldiers. The Go-242 and Me-321 served primarily on the Eastern Front to bring food and supplies to German soldiers. Powered versions, the Go-244 and Me-323, were also developed for transport service.

Great Britain

Although the twin-engine Bristol Bombay was designed as a troop transport carrier in 1931, the economic conditions of the Great Depression delayed production until early 1939. While only 51 were produced, the Bristol Bombay, which was capable of carrying up to 24 troops or a payload of 7,200 lb, saw significant action for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the first half of the war, ferrying troops and supplies across the English Channel in 1940, evacuating British forces from Crete in 1941, and dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines in North Africa.

Originally intended as a bomber, the Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle was instead converted to transport service. A total of 310 were used as transports for special operations, such as dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines. An additional 247 served as the standard tug for the Airspeed Horsa assault glider, seeing action in the invasion of Sicily in 1943 and the D day landings in June 1944. At least 10 were shipped to the Soviet Union.

Great Britain produced two primary transport gliders during the war: the Airspeed Horsa and the General Aircraft Hamilcar. The Horsa came in two varieties: the Mk. 1, which was configured for carrying up to 25 troops; and the Mk. 2, which could carry up to 7,000 lb of freight and featured a hinged nose section for easier loading and unloading. Approximately 3,800 of the Horsa gliders were constructed. The Hamilcar was the largest Allied glider of the war and was capable of carrying a payload of 17,500 lb. It first saw action in the D day landings and proved immensely significant because it could provide heavy equipment, such as the British Tetrarch Mk. IV tank, to airborne troops operating behind enemy lines.

Other British aircraft used in a transport role included those that also served as bombers or reconnaissance aircraft such as the Handley Page Halifax, the Short Stirling, and Vickers Warwick.


Although Italy relied on several aircraft for transport duties, such as the Caproni CA 309-316, the Piaggio P. 108, and the Savoia-Marchetti S. M. 81 Pipistrello, their primary role was as bombers or reconnaissance aircraft. The Savoia-Marchetti S. M. 75 and the Savoia-Marchetti S. M. 82 Canguru were exceptions. The S. M. 75 had originally been designed for passenger service for Ala Littoria in 1937. Requisitioned for military service when Italy entered the war in June 1940, the S. M. 75 could carry up to 30 troops and saw action throughout the Mediterranean until the end of the war. A total of 98 were constructed. The three-engine S. M. 82 proved to be one of the best heavy transports available to the Axis powers. It was capable of carrying up to 40 fully equipped troops or almost 9,000 lb of freight. Of approximately 400 S. M. 82s constructed between 1941 and 1943, at least 50 entered service with the Luftwaffe in the Baltic area of the Eastern Front. Those that survived the war continued in service with the Italian air force into the 1950s.


Although Japan employed a variety of multipurpose aircraft, such as the Nakajima G5N Shinzan and the Tachikawa Ki-54, for transporting troops and supplies, it relied primarily on four main transport aircraft during World War II: the Kawanishi H6K flying boat, the Kawanishi H8K flying boat, the Kawasaki Ki-56, and the Mitsubishi Ki-57.

When Japan entered the war, the four-engine Kawanishi H6K served as the navy’s primary long-range flying boat. Although used at first primarily for long-range reconnaissance, it was soon relegated to transport duty because of its vulnerability to Allied fighters. Capable of carrying up to 18 troops in addition to its crew, the H6K remained in production until 1943. Of the 217 constructed, 139 were designed exclusively for transport.

The four-engine Kawanishi H8K entered service in early 1942 and gradually replaced the Kawanishi H6K. While it also served in a variety of roles, its transport version, the H8K2- L, of which 36 were built, could carry up to 64 passengers. With a cruising speed of 185 mph and a range of up to 4,460 miles, it was well-suited for the Pacific Theater, and its heavy armament afforded better protection than the H6K.

Ironically, Japan’s primary light transport aircraft, the twin-engine Kawasaki Ki-56, was a military version of a license-built American plane, the Lockheed 14 Electra. It was capable of carrying a payload of up to 5,290 lb or 14 passengers and had a range of approximately 3,300 miles. A total of 121 were constructed between 1941 and 1943.

Originally intended for passenger service with Nippon Koku KK, the twin-engine Mitsubishi Ki-57 was quickly adapted for service with both the Japanese army and navy beginning in 1940. After Japan entered the war, the original production series, of which 101 were built, was modified by adding more powerful engines. Between 1942 and early 1945, 406 of the new version (Ki-57-II) were constructed. These were capable of carrying a crew of 4 and up to 11 passengers or a cargo of approximately 7,000 lb to a range of up to 1,835 miles.

Soviet Union

While the Soviet Union relied heavily on American aircraft, such as license-built Douglas C-47 Skytrains, for transport purposes, the four-engine Tupolev TB-3 (ANT-6), originally designed in the early 1930s as a heavy bomber, had been converted primarily for troop and freight transport by the time the Soviet Union entered World War II. Later versions fitted with four 1,200 hp engines were capable of carrying more than 12,000 lb of cargo. In addition to carrying airborne troops and supplies, it also served as a glider tug. Some were even modified to carry a tank or truck between their undercarriage legs.

United States

Of all the powers in World War II, the United States had by far the largest number and variety of transport aircraft, in part because it was conducting simultaneous campaigns in the European and Pacific Theaters.

Without question, the twin-engine Douglas C-47 Skytrain was the most famous transport aircraft of World War II. As the DC-3, it had revolutionized civil air travel before the war. Once the United States entered the war, the Skytrain went into full-scale military production; 10,665 were produced by war’s end, including 4,878 in 1944 alone. Of its variants, the C-47 Skytrain (known as the Dakota in British service), accounted for more than 9,000 of the total produced, approximately 1,800 of which were loaned to Great Britain through Lend-Lease. An additional 2,500 were constructed on license by the Soviet Union as the Lisunov Li-2. Even the Japanese built 485 as the Nakajima L2D through a 1938 license. With a range of 1,500 miles and capable of carrying 28 troops or a cargo of 10,000 lb, it saw service in every theater of the war.

The four-engine Consolidated Liberator Transport C-87 was a transport version of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber. A total of 287 C-87s were produced and served with the U. S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and the RAF as a transport and a tanker. As a transport, it was capable of carrying up to 25 passengers and up to 10,000 lb of freight. As a tanker, it could carry up to 2,400 gallons of fuel, which proved useful in a variety of theaters, but especially in support of Boeing B- 29 Superfortresses operating in China.

Originally designed in 1936 as the CW-20 (a 36-passenger pressured airliner), the twin-engine Curtiss C-46 Commando entered service in 1942 after undergoing extensive modifications for military service. These included the installation of a large cargo door, a strengthened floor, and folding troop seats. It was capable of carrying up to 50 troops, 33 wounded soldiers, and up to 10,000 lb of cargo. These characteristics, combined with its excellent climbing ability, made it ideally suited for flying over the Himalayas (“the Hump”) from India to China. A total of 3,341 were produced.

As with the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the Douglas C-54 Skymaster was originally designed for passenger airliner service as the DC-4. After Pearl Harbor, the U. S. military quickly adopted it, with the first C-54 Skymaster entering service in February 1942. With a maximum range of 3,900 miles, Skymasters flew almost 80,000 trans-Atlantic flights during the course of the war with a loss of just three aircraft. It was capable of carrying 50 troops or 28,000 lb of cargo. It would remain in service until 1974 and is famous for its role in the Berlin Airlift of 1948.

The Waco CG-4A Hadrian proved to be one of the most effective transport gliders produced in the war. Designed for mass production, the Hadrian featured fabric-covered wooden wings and a steel tube fuselage, which was easily replicated by the 15 firms involved in constructing the 13,910 Hadrians produced during the war. Its most notable feature was a hinged nose section that raised upward and allowed cargo to be loaded directly into the cabin. It was capable of carrying 15 troops or 3,800 lb of cargo, which could include a jeep or 75 mm howitzer and its crew. It proved effective in landings in Sicily, the D day invasion, and the Rhine crossings, and it would have been an integral part of an Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland had the atomic bomb not ended the war.

Other successful U. S. transport aircraft of the war included the following three aircraft: the twin-engine Lockheed Lodestar, of which 625 were produced, was a military version of the civil Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra; the twin-engine Beechcraft C-45 Expeditor, of which 1,391 were built, was a military version of the civil Beechcraft Model 18 light transport; and the Martin PBM Mariner Flying Boat, of which 1,405 were produced, served in a variety of roles besides transport, including antisubmarine warfare, air-sea rescue, and maritime patrol.

U. S. Airlift Operations

The first U. S. airlift operations began during World War I using four British-designed de Havilland DH-4 biplanes to drop supplies to the beleaguered Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest. One aircraft was successful, and the crew, consisting of Lieutenants Harold Goettler and Erwin Bleckley, were posthumously awarded of Medals of Honor for their actions on 6 October 1918.

Airlift operations within the U. S. military began in the mid-1920s. The aircraft primarily supported operations of combat and headquarters units. The first transport aircraft for the U. S. Army Air Service, built in 1919, was the Martin T-1, based on the MB-1 bomber. Its fuselage was redesigned to enclose the cockpit and provide accommodations for up to 10 passengers.

For the brief period 15 May-29 August 1919, the Army flew mail for the U. S. Postal Service. First in this long series of aircraft was the Douglas C-1, an enlarged version of the famed World Cruisers that made the first round-the-world flight in 1924. Transport aircraft were procured in small quantities of one to 10 from the C-1 through the C-31, indicating the low priority of such aircraft to the service (the General Aircraft [American Fokker] C-14 was the exception, with 20 being procured). It was not until the advent of the Douglas C-32 (the military version of the commercial DC-2) that airlift became a serious issue with the military.

In fiscal year 1942, the Army procured 24 C-32s as troop transports, 18 C-33s for freighters, and a pair of C-34s as VIP transports. That year was also the start of orders for 3,144 Curtiss C-46 Commandos, capable of carrying 50 troops. A total of 9,583 Douglas C-47 Skytrains (the military version of the commercial DC-3) were also produced for the Army as well as the Navy and Allied nations. Both the C-46 and C-47 saw service during World War II and Korea. The C-47 soldiered on through the Vietnam War.

Management of such a large transport force was a major undertaking. First, the operations were divided between strategic and tactical airlift. Strategic operations initially began with ferrying Lend-Lease aircraft to England. This mission was performed by the Air Corps Ferrying Command, established on 29 May 1941. By 7 December 1941, the command had delivered some 1,300 aircraft to the Allied forces around the world. Ferrying Command was redesignated Air Transport Command (ATC) on 20 June 1942, and although it continued its role in ferrying aircraft, it was primarily tasked with providing all strategic airlift for the War Department, delivering personnel and materiel critical to the war effort throughout the world. At its peak, ATC had more than 3,700 aircraft supported by more than 300,000 personnel.

The first ATC was activated on 1 May 1942. The command was designated the I Troop Carrier Command in July 1942. This organization was a major command that reported directly to Headquarters Army Air Forces and was responsible for training troop carrier units and personnel within the United States for parachute troops, airborne infantry, and glider units. The I Troop Carrier Command was disbanded on 5 November 1945. Theater operations were conducted by the IX Troop Carrier Command, activated in England on 16 October 1943.

The Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) was formed on 12 December 1941. Though much smaller than the Army’s ATC, NATS was equipped with 429 aircraft supported by 26,000 personnel. Its mission was to provide a global air transportation network between naval establishments and naval areas of operation.

Among the Allied powers, airline operations all but stopped save for direct military support roles. Britain’s Imperial Airways (which became BOAC in mid-1940) ceased civil operation and came under military command. Headquarters were relocated west to Bristol; landplane and seaplane bases moved farther west as well. Imperial maintained civilian service between London and Paris until the German occupation of the latter in June 1940. Flying-boat services to Africa and the Horseshoe Route around the Indian Ocean to Australia and New Zealand began in mid-1940 and operated until Japanese advances in early 1942. Then Australia’s QANTAS flew Catalina seaplanes from Ceylon to Perth, a distance of 3,500 miles; these “double sunrise” flights made up the longest nonstop air route of the war and took 27-30 hours with a 1,200-pound payload. To the extent their equipment escaped loss through battle or occupation, KLM, Sabena, Air France, and QANTAS (among others) used their surviving airliners or were forced to use “interim types” (converted bombers) as further development of promising airliners had to be cancelled for the duration.

References Jarrett, Philip, ed. Aircraft of the Second World War. London: Putnam, 1997. Munson, Kenneth. Bombers, Patrol, and Transport Aircraft, 1939-45. Poole, UK: Blandford Press, 2002. Wilson, Stewart. Aircraft of WWII. Fyshwick, Australia: Aerospace Publications, 1998.

AIRPOWER 1918 Part I

1918 Gotha G.Va – Taras Shtyk

1918 Fokker DVII Hermann Göring – Taras Shtyk

1918 Siemens Schuckert D.III Ernst Udet – Taras Shtyk

1918 Caproni Ca-42

Integral to the balance of intelligence advantage was air superiority, which had never been more fiercely contested than in 1918. During the war aircraft speeds and ceilings had doubled, engine horsepower quadrupled, and bomb payloads grew even more. German aeroplane speeds had risen from 80 to 200 kilometres per hour, and maximum loads from 3.5 to 1,000 kilograms. Since the development of fighters (or ‘pursuit’ aircraft as the Allies called them – ‘hunter aircraft’ or Jagdflugzeuge was the German term), combat had spread into the skies. Aircraft took up roles that they would keep through the Second World War and beyond: not just guiding the artillery but also striking ground targets as a form of flying artillery themselves. They operated at sea and in every theatre on land. They also embarked upon strategic bombing.

By 1918 ‘strategical’ bombing existed as a concept and was discussed as such in the newly formed British Air Staff and Air Ministry. It meant attacks on home-front targets such as cities, factories, and railways rather than the enemy forces. Militarily the two sides’ efforts in good measure cancelled each other out, but bomber raids on Paris and London hardened Allied public opinion against Germany, and prompted reprisal raids, which if the war had continued would have become much bigger. An escalation dynamic was in evidence that anticipated later tragedies, although as yet the technology was scarcely comparable to that which a generation later laid waste to Europe.

The first Hague Peace Conference in 1899 had banned the dropping of projectiles from balloons but only for a five-year period, and before 1914 the popular press and fiction writers had foreseen air attacks on cities. London’s vulnerability caused a panic in 1913.83 After war began, humanitarian considerations caused little hesitation. The French bombed Ludwigshafen in 1914, and they and the British continued to raid enemy border towns into 1915–16, although neither had yet developed specialized bomber aircraft and the damage caused was slight. From Germany, only Zeppelin airships could reach London, and they came under the German navy. Gradually Wilhelm – who had scruples about targeting historic buildings and his cousins’ palaces, while the Chancellor was worried about neutral public opinion – ceded to the navy’s enthusiasm, and raids on London began on 31 May 1915. For some months the British had no answer, but during 1916 new BE2C aircraft arrived that climbed higher and were stable at night, and fired incendiary ‘Buckingham’ bullets. Supported by better anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, and an improved ground observer system, they shot down so many Zeppelins that from September 1916 raids on London ceased. Because of raw-material shortages the airships’ skin was no longer rubberized, and their ribs consisted of wood rather than aluminium, making them even more flammable. The danger seemed over, and in early 1917 the British authorities were winding down their civil defence arrangements.

But the Zeppelins prepared the way for bombing by aircraft. German engineers had been working on the Gotha G-IV bomber since the start of the war, and the OHL wanted it ready for raids to coincide with unrestricted submarine warfare. London, 175 miles from the Gothas’ bases in Belgium, fell within their 500-mile range. Unlike French cities, it could be approached over water, without ground defences, and the Thames estuary provided a conspicuous guideline. Gothas carried a smaller payload than did Zeppelins, but they were faster (87 mph), higher (up to 10,500 feet), more heavily armed (carrying three machine guns), and harder to shoot down. Moreover, whereas the British decrypted the Zeppelins’ wireless code and always had warning of their arrival, the first daylight Gotha raids (codenamed Operation Türkenkreuz) were unanticipated. They killed and injured 290 people at Folkestone on 25 May, and on 13 June they killed and injured 594 in bombing centred on London’s Liverpool Street Station and the East End, including eighteen children at the Upper North Street school in the East India Dock Road; on 7 July another raid on the capital claimed 250 more casualties. By this stage there was media uproar and tense discussion in the War Cabinet. Two fighter squadrons returned from the Western Front (over Haig’s protests) – and a new agency, the London Air Defence Area (LADA), was created under Major Edward B. Ashmore, a gunner moved from Flanders. Ashmore added another barrier of fighters east of London and altered their tactics so that they attacked the Gothas in groups rather than singly, and the same bad weather that bedevilled British troops in Belgium assisted him. In three raids during August the Gothas failed to reach London, and in the last they lost three aircraft, one to AA fire and two to fighters. Perhaps prematurely, they switched to night attacks.

Night bomber attacks were the last and most challenging of the threats against London during the war. Now the Gothas were joined by Riesenflugzeuge or ‘Giants’, with a 138-foot wingspan (that of a B-29 Superfortress in the Second World War), a maximum height of 19,000 feet, nine crew wearing heated flying suits, six machine guns, and a payload of up to 2 tons, including 1,000-kilogram bombs that could wreck a housing block. They could take enormous punishment, and none were ever shot down. During ‘the blitz of the harvest moon’ between 24 September and 1 October 1917 night-flying bombers visited London six times. For the British this was the most trying time: their anti-aircraft batteries were nearing exhaustion due to ammunition expenditure and deterioration of the barrels, 100,000–300,000 people took shelter in the Underground each evening, and up to one sixth of munitions production was lost, although contemporary estimates ran much higher. Worsening weather and wear and tear on the bombers and their crews then provided relief, and during the winter Ashmore installed better searchlights and balloon barrages while the Sopwith Camel proved itself as an effective night fighter. As in the campaign against the U-boats, there was no one spectacular turning point but gradually the defenders inflicted greater losses and the attackers caused less damage. From October the British read German wireless messages, and once given more warning their aircraft destroyed an average of one tenth of the Gothas on each raid. Terrible episodes still took place, such as the bombing of a basement shelter in Long Acre on 28 January, with over a hundred killed and wounded. But in the biggest raid of all, on 19 May 1918, forty-three aircraft took off but six were lost in action and seven in accidents, while according to a survey by the medical journal The Lancet the civilian mood had now improved. From this point raids on London (though not the provinces) ended, in part to redirect the bombers to the Western Front. In addition the campaign was taking a growing toll of aircraft, a total of twenty-four being lost in action and another thirty-seven in accidents. Partly because of raw-material shortages the Gothas were shoddily made, and their undercarriage was liable to collapse on landing. By 1918, moreover, British fighters could be mobilized much faster and Ashmore established an operations control room where observers’ reports were centralized and instructions coordinated in a manner prefiguring the second and more celebrated Battle of Britain.

A parallel Gotha campaign against Paris began on 30–31 January 1918, leaflets dropped over the trenches justifying it on the grounds that the French had refused peace. By 15 September a total of fourteen raids had dropped 664 bombs, although the heaviest attacks came in the spring, seventy people dying on 11 March in a panic crush at the Bolivar Métro station. As against London, the Germans launched a multi-faceted attack on the city’s morale, as the Gotha raids preceded the ‘Michael’ offensive and on 22 March the first shell landed from the ‘Paris gun’, the precursor to 370 more between 23 March and 8 August. In fact the gun caused greater shock than the Gothas, which dropped 30 tons of bombs compared with 100 tons on Britain. Fighters played a smaller role in air defence than in London, partly owing to a shortage of planes, so anti-aircraft guns were the main – and quite effective – defensive implement. Even though Paris was only two hours’ flying time from the enemy trenches, few of the bombers reached their destination and most got lost or turned back. Only eleven of the thirty Gothas that departed on 30 January arrived, and of 483 sent in total thirteen were shot down and only thirty-seven got through to the city.

Total casualties in Paris from air raids were 266 killed and 603 wounded (the Paris gun killing a further 256 and wounding sixty-two), while British casualties in the Gotha and Giant raids numbered 856 dead and 1,965 wounded, and the property damage was estimated at £1.5m. Ashmore later compared these figures to the more than 700 lives lost annually in London in the 1920s on the roads. Certainly they were small in comparison with the thousands dying daily on the Western Front, and the Germans could have pursued the campaign more ruthlessly. By August 1918 they had ready a new device based on magnesium and aluminium, the Elektron Bomb, which was incendiary enough to set off firestorms. After delays due to bad weather, a raid on London was planned for 23 September. But at the last moment Ludendorff called it off, because the German government feared reprisals, but perhaps also because he was already contemplating the ceasefire appeal that he demanded five days later. Humanitarian sentiment, however, formed no particular constraint. When in 1917 Bethmann Hollweg complained that Gotha bombing was ‘irritating the chauvinistic and fanatical instincts of the English nation without cause’, Hindenburg replied that being conciliatory would gain nothing and the raids kept war material away from the Western Front: ‘It is regrettable, but inevitable, that they cause the loss of innocent lives as well.’ More important as a limiting factor were technical considerations. A Giant cost over half a million marks and each one needed a fifty-man ground crew: only eighteen were built. Even the cost of a Gotha doubled between 1916 and 1917. Although supposedly aircraft were second only to submarines in their claims on manufacturing resources, Germany lacked the manpower and raw materials to fulfil its construction programmes, and strategic bombing competed with the needs of army support. In addition the prevalent cloudy weather over North-Western Europe hindered all kinds of air activity (as over Kosovo as late as 1999), but especially bombing: which meant sustained attacks as in September 1917 were rare. And in comparison with their Second World War successors, 1918 bombers carried tiny payloads and delivered them inaccurately, not least because bombsights were still under development. The Gothas attacking London operated at the limit of their range, under fire, and mostly at night, and achieved little beyond random terror. They hardly damaged docks and railways or the armaments industry, even the enormous complex at Woolwich Arsenal being hit just once. Hence the main practical consequence was to tie up Allied resources in air defence, which Hindenburg and the commanding general of the German air force, Ernest von Hoeppner, recognized as an objective. At least in this respect they had considerable success. Britain lost forty-five aircraft and seventy-eight aircrew in the battles over its home islands, all the latter in accidents, whereas German casualties were several times heavier. But while in 1917–18 Germany committed approximately 100 Gothas, 15 Giants, and 30 Zeppelins to the British campaign, Britain committed some 200 aircraft to its defence, supported by searchlights and by anti-aircraft guns crewed by 14,000 ground personnel.

Nor was this the end of the reckoning, as the Gotha raids caused a redirection in British air policy, which otherwise would not have happened at this time, nor met so little resistance. After the Liverpool Street bombing, the Cabinet decided almost to double the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) from 108 to 200 squadrons, with most of the extra aeroplanes being equipped for bombing. Although this target was never reached, production rates rose substantially. Jan-Christian Smuts, the South African general and former defence minister who had joined Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, reported to it on 9 August that ‘the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial centres and population centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military operations may become secondary and subordinate’. He recommended merging the RFC with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), under an Air Ministry with its own air staff to plan for the employment of an aircraft surplus that the Ministry of Munitions – overconfidently – expected. Motivated partly by reports that Germany planned a huge bomber expansion, the government approved Smuts’s recommendations and passed legislation to create the Air Ministry in January 1918, the merger into the new RAF following in April. Finally, in the wake of the ‘harvest moon’ raids, the Cabinet authorized immediate reprisals. The climax of the German raids on London and Paris was followed by the climax of the Allied air assault on the Rhineland.

The 1918 strategic air offensive against Germany was predominantly British. The Americans took part, using British DH9 bombers, and suffered heavily, but the French high command was ambivalent, partly because it feared retaliation and partly because it believed that bombs were better employed against the German army and its staging areas. The French had developed the fast and high-flying Bréguet XIV B.2 two-seater bomber, which could be escorted over Germany by a long-distance heavy fighter, the Caudron R.XI. During 1918 they fought a battle of attrition: in the first quarter they dropped 200 tons of bombs and lost 20 aircraft; in the second they dropped 500 tons but lost 50 and the authorities hesitated over whether to continue; but in the third quarter they dropped 700 tons and lost 29 and in October they dropped 600 tons and lost 3. They were slowly winning mastery of the German skies. As for the British, from October 1917 their 41st wing carried out day and night attacks on Germany from Ochey in Lorraine. In June 1918, the Independent Force, RAF (or IF) was created, under the command of Sir Hugh Trenchard, previously commander of the RFC. Now the raids were intensified and their radius lengthened. According to Sir Frederick Sykes, the Chief of the Air Staff, ‘as the offensive is the dominant factor in war, so is the Strategic Air Offensive the dominant factor in air power’, and the offensive would aim to dislocate the enemy munitions industries, attack the U-boats in their bases, and ‘bring about far-reaching moral and political effects in Germany’. Between October 1917 and November 1918, 508 raids took place, dropping 14,911 high-explosive bombs and 816,019 incendiaries. In July and August the British went to the limits of their range, bombing Cologne, Frankfurt, Mannheim, and Darmstadt. The Air Staff priority for 1919 was the Ruhr’s steel and chemical industries, and the new Handley Page V/500 bomber, becoming available in November 1918, could reach Berlin.

Yet if anything the Allies’ raids were less destructive than Germany’s. German casualties from air raids during the war totalled 746 killed and 1,843 injured: the damage was valued at 24 million marks (£1.2m), but industrial disruption was slight. Sykes cited photographic evidence of damage to factories and German press reports that the Rhinelanders were demanding more protection, but a post-war RAF investigation was more sceptical. Although alerts and sleepless nights disheartened the workforce, few blast furnaces were damaged and the huge BASF chemical works at Ludwigshafen, a major target, never had to shut down. Similarly the French tried to halt supplies from the Briey iron ore mines in Lorraine, a location close to their border that produced 80 per cent of Germany’s output, but their efforts were completely ineffective.

Three main explanations can be cited, the first being technical. By late 1944 Britain and America were dropping 90,000 tons of bombs on Germany per month in 18,000 sorties, as a result of which the Third Reich’s armaments output finally began to decline: between October 1917 and November 1918 the British dropped 665 tons in total, and less accurately. Similarly an Allied campaign in June–July 1918 dropped 61 tons of bombs over the Germans’ railways but demonstrated that bombs could not destroy trains unless landing within a few feet of them. Germany’s fruitless efforts in June to smash the Allies’ crucial railway viaduct at Etaples pointed to the same conclusion. Moreover, the Allied bombers had just five and a half hours’ endurance, so only Germany’s south-western corner was in reach. The weather was another obstacle, the campaign winding down as the autumn skies became more clouded. And although the British DH4 bomber was a dependable workhorse, the new DH9 proved constantly unreliable and many missions were abandoned because of engine failure.

The second explanation was the Germans’ countermeasures. In 1916 they introduced a centralized observation system and unified fighter defence, later supplemented by searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, and balloons. In summer 1918 they reinforced their fighters to 320; and British losses became formidable: 104 day bombers and thirty-four night ones were lost to German action and 320 crashed behind Allied lines, while in September the IF lost 75 per cent of its aircraft in one month. By the end of the war air defence, like the rest of German aviation, was being slowly paralysed by shortages, but until then it exacted a high price.

The third and final impediment came from the Allies’ own priorities and policies. Foch shared the general French lack of enthusiasm, stating in a 1 April directive that ground attacks against the enemy troops should be the main objective (and air fighting only as necessary to achieve it) alongside bombing of key railway junctions. He wanted the IF under his authority. In October the British agreed to an inter-Allied bombing force under Trenchard that would be answerable to the Marshal, and this body would have overseen strategic bombing in 1919. But Trenchard himself never carried out operations as the air staff had intended, and like the French he was a strategic bombing sceptic who as RFC commander had seen his primary duty as assisting the army. Although Sykes instructed the Independent Force to ‘obliterate’ first the German chemical industry and then the Lorraine steel industry, in fact of 416 raids between June and September 1918 only thirty-four were against chemical plants and another thirty-four against steel plants, whereas 185 were against rail targets and 139 against aerodromes, objectives that Trenchard had been told to leave for other parts of the RAF. Even the locations on which effort was concentrated escaped critical damage: the ‘railway triangle’ round Metz and Sablon was the most heavily attacked single target, but traffic there was never halted for long. It was also true that Trenchard never received a force commensurate with the government’s initial intentions, as although the IF grew from five to nine squadrons he had been required to plan for thirty-four. Only 427 of the 1,817 bombing aircraft sent from Britain to France in 1918 went to the IF, and at the armistice only 140 of the 1,799 RAF aircraft on the Western Front were assigned to it. Various reasons lay behind this, notably that the expected production surplus did not materialize and losses during the Ludendorff offensives were heavy. But even a much larger Independent Force would have achieved little, and airpower’s most important function remained direct support of the armies.


1918 Aviatik Berg D.I at War – R. Zanello

1918 Gotha GL VII -Taras Shtyk

1918 Sopwith 2F1 Camel N6603 HMS Pegasus – Taras Shtyk

1918 SE5a 40 Squadron Gwilym Hugh Lewis – Taras Shtyk

Since 1914 reconnaissance had been a vital function of airpower, in the rudimentary period of trench warfare much of it still carried out from balloons, although sturdy two-seater observation planes increasingly replaced them. By 1916 specialized fighters were emerging, to shoot down the balloons and observation aircraft, but also to escort and defend them. By 1917 further new functions of ground attack and long-distance bombing were coming into their own. Throughout this evolution, in a microcosm of the war as a whole, the Allies had the advantage in numbers but the Germans were their equal and often their superior in quality, and regularly inflicted heavier losses. The latter’s advantage arose partly from an early lead in engine technology (assisted by their development of airships), but also from the peculiar characteristics of the air campaign. Two thirds of aerial combats took place over the German side of the line, the prevailing pattern being for the British (and to a lesser extent the French) to seek command of German airspace while denying Allied airspace to the enemy. According to an RFC memorandum, ‘The successful performance of the roles of the RFC in defence must primarily depend on its ability to gain and maintain the ascendancy in the air. This can only be done by attacking and defeating the enemy’s air force.’ Thereby the Allies exposed themselves to the hit-and-run tactics of which the ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen, and his ‘circus’ were masters. None the less, by 1918 patrols by multi-squadron units and dogfights between dozens of aircraft were not uncommon, and the exploits of individual ‘aces’ – many of whom perished during the year – were becoming more peripheral. At times, particularly during the ‘Fokker scourge’ of winter 1915–16, and ‘bloody April’ in 1917, new aircraft types had given the Germans an extra edge, but at the end of 1917 Allied fighters such as the British Sopwith Camel and SE5a and the French Spad XIII (the most manufactured aircraft of the war), had restored near qualitative parity. Although the Germans hoped, with a new fighter generation, to tip the balance back their way, they never quite managed it.

Airpower was integral to the OHL’s new offensive doctrine. Pre-attack reconnaissance would be ‘of deciding importance’. Once the attack began, aircraft should hit enemy aerodromes, camps, and railway stations before turning to their infantry and artillery. Preparations in winter 1917–18 included war games under Hoeppner’s direction. Overflights began in January, using Rumpler and LVG reconnaissance aircraft, to identify targets along the Allied lines and behind them. In keeping with their concern to avoid detection, the Germans maintained high activity even away from the attack zone, while above the latter they tried to disarm suspicion by not preventing Allied overflights. Similarly, new hangars were built all along the Western Front, not just in the designated area. None the less, over half Germany’s fighters and bombers were concentrated on the ‘Michael’ sector, as well as new and strongly armoured two-seaters that were specially designed for ground attack and gathered in thirty-eight Schlachtstaffeln. As of 21 March along the entire British front the British had 1,255 aircraft and the Germans 1,020 while on the French front 2,590 French aircraft faced 471 German ones, but in the battle sector south of Arras the British were outnumbered by 579 to 730. Whereas the British spread their airpower the Germans could focus it because they knew where the battleground would be, and their adversaries were slow to detect it. In fact, the RFC in January and February did spot preparations opposite the British Third and Fifth Armies, including railway and aerodrome construction, forward dumping of supplies, and extra railway movements. It dropped bombs night and day on German aerodromes, railways, billets, and munitions dumps, and although the German air force was deliberately inactive it engaged in dogfights, including one on 18 March over Busigny station that involved Richthofen’s circus and was one of the biggest yet seen. But even though the RFC could generally operate over German lines, its bombing caused little disruption, and it failed to detect the southernmost extension of the German attack opposite Gough’s Fifth Army.

‘Michael’ was accompanied by the biggest aerial confrontation yet seen. The morning mist on the opening days impeded the Germans from exploiting their superiority while it was greatest. None the less, they monitored their infantry advance, and harassed the retreating British, the Schlachtstaffeln going into action on the first afternoon. On 24 March, German pilots observed the gap emerging between the British and French armies. But abundant targets presented themselves to both sides, as the infantry, artillery, and supply trains emerged from cover to cross open ground in daylight, and one pre-eminent feature of the battle was ground attack. A second was that the normal liaison between aircraft and artillery broke down. On the German side this was partly due to an avoidable error, against which Hoeppner had warned: the OHL had transferred from the air service to the Signals Corps the ground crews and materiel needed to assure communication, and inexperienced and inadequately trained personnel replaced them. On the British side, gun batteries in makeshift positions often failed to put up their wireless masts, so that even when the RFC reported enemy troops and batteries, no bombardments were directed against them. Although aircraft-directed artillery fire might have been preferable to using the aircraft themselves for ground attack, in the confusion of the retreat it was frequently unavailable as an option.

In the opening phase the RFC lost many more airfields than expected, but it improvised new ones and moved back its supply depots, while enough reserve machines were available simply to replace damaged aeroplanes without spending time repairing them. Conversely, as the Germans moved forward, they too needed to improvise new airfields, but the old Somme battlefield offered few favourable sites: a problem the more serious because German fighters (typically designed for high-performance interception) had an average endurance of only ninety minutes, whereas that of Allied fighters was 150. Moreover, the RFC could reinforce any part of the British sector of the Western Front in at most one and a half hours’ flying time. For these reasons, after 23 March the British (assisted by French aircraft) regained superiority, which they used to avoid dogfights and concentrate on aiding the ground troops, the Chief of the Air Staff instructing that ‘very low flying is essential. All risks to be taken.’ Over the battle as a whole, RFC losses were twice those of the Germans and many were due to ground fire. Yet even in these desperate circumstances, the British were as usual counting: so that whereas on 21 March they fired 21,000 machine-gun rounds and dropped 15.5 tons on ground targets, by 27 March the figures were 313,345 rounds and 50 tons. At first the priority was to help the Third Army prevent a break-out across the old Somme battlefield, but thereafter the focus shifted south to the Fifth Army. German reports to the OHL testified to the chaos and disorientation caused by incessant Allied strafing, which forced columns to scatter and reduced the roads to chaos. In general, airpower delivered to the Germans the reconnaissance needed for Bruchmüller’s bombardment, but little more: fog grounded the Schlachtstaffeln for much of the first two days and thereafter the Allies regained the advantage. On the other hand, aerial observation told the British much of the story about where and when the attack was coming, but missed some crucial details. At first the RFC gave the ground troops little assistance, but later its role expanded, even if the infantry and artillery played the principal part in halting Ludendorff. On 4 April Trenchard told the Cabinet that since 19 March the RFC/RAF had dropped 319 tons of bombs and fired over 1 million machine-gun rounds at ground targets. It had destroyed 244 enemy planes and driven down 122 more: ‘there was a feeling at the front that we had definite air superiority over the battle zone’.

‘Michael’ set a pattern. British overflights detected the German transport movements towards the Lys in early April, and on the 6th reported advanced preparations against the Portuguese, but GHQ supposed this attack to be diversionary and ordered only limited pre-emptive bombing. All the same, the Germans again lost numerical superiority after the first two days of the battle, partly because the swampy terrain made it difficult to create new forward aerodromes. Fog and cloud again prevented them from maximizing their advantage, and by the time the battle reached its crisis on 12 April the weather had cleared and the RAF been reinforced. It flew more hours, took more photographs, and dropped more bombs than on any other day of the war, firing 114,904 machine-gun rounds and issuing eighty-nine calls for artillery support, while 137 aircraft harried the enemy drive towards Hazebrouck. The Germans’ infantry complained of inadequate protection, and they suffered another blow when Richthofen was brought down and killed on 21 April. In the later stages of ‘Georgette’, although German aircraft contributed to the taking of Mount Kemmel, bad weather again restricted airpower’s role. Overall, as in the ‘Michael’ battle, it helped to stem the German tide in the critical phase, but it is hard to see its contribution as indispensable.

During ‘Michael’ the French had moved aircraft to Picardy to bomb the German crossings of the Somme and the Crozat Canal and to attack enemy troops in formations of up to eighty. But although the French air force was bigger than the RAF, during March and April it remained quiet. Unlike the British, GQG’s approach was not to maintain a continuous fighter presence but to create mixed groupements (groupings) of fighters and bombers for mass intervention in critical sectors. Even so, above the Chemin des Dames in May the Germans again won the initial advantage, largely due to surprise. Intensified French overflights had missed the German preparations, while British pilots in the sector had detected only clouds of dust. On 27 May itself liaison between the Allied artillery and aviation broke down along with everything else. The Germans had just taken delivery of the Fokker D-VII, widely considered the best fighter of the war, and they overran many French airfields intact. In addition, communication improved between the German pilots and headquarters, so that this time the Schlachtstaffeln could act as intended, and delayed French reinforcements by interdicting rail traffic. Yet even when the Germans held so many advantages the French still responded rapidly, Pétain ordering a groupement to depart early on 27 May and the first planes taking off an hour later. Between 31 May and 4 June the French shot down or damaged over 100 German aircraft and dropped 200 tons of explosives, and the Chemin des Dames marked the high-water mark of the Germans’ air effectiveness as of their effectiveness generally. In the Battle of the Matz French fighters commanded the skies two days after the start, and French bombers attacked the German artillery during Mangin’s counteroffensive. The British also assisted, and assisted again against the final German offensive on 15 July, nine RAF squadrons flying down a day beforehand at Foch’s request. Night reconnaissance – which first became important in 1918 – gave warning of this attack, and one of the most striking uses of Allied airpower was against the German bridges over the Marne. In Italy, similarly, the Italians had enjoyed the air advantage before 1917, but they lost it when the Germans reinforced the Austrians before the Battle of Caporetto, only for the Allied air forces to regain it early in 1918 and add it to their other intelligence advantages before the Battle of the Piave. When the Austrians attacked, the cloud was too low for the RAF to assist the British troops in the Asiago sector, but they were redirected to helping the Italians, up to fifty British aircraft at a time in the following days attacking the Austrian pontoon bridges. Repeatedly the Allies deprived the Central Powers of air superiority, and whether over the Somme, Marne, or Piave, they benefited more from airpower than did their enemies.

In the offensive phase after mid-July the Allies maintained this advantage, although it was smaller than the raw numbers might indicate. For the Battle of Amiens they assembled a crushing initial preponderance of 800 British and 1,104 French aircraft against 365 German ones, most of the German air force being still away in Champagne. During the first morning, after the mist lifted, the RAF attacked enemy artillery, rail and horse-drawn transport, and infantry columns, but in the afternoon all available aircraft were concentrated on attempting to destroy the Somme bridges. This effort continued for two days, and led to some of the fiercest aerial combat yet seen. Unusually, the Germans abandoned their guerrilla tactics and also committed their forces en masse, including the Richthofen circus, commanded since its founder’s death by Hermann Goering. On 8 August the RAF lost ninety-six aircraft and on 9 August another forty-five, and by 10 August it had thrown in over 70 per cent of its single-seat fighters; yet although the Richthofen circus was pulled out and never recovered, not one of the fourteen bridges was seriously damaged.

Certainly air mastery helped assure surprise, from Amiens to Megiddo, and the Allies used it to conceal their preparations – for example, flying at night to drown out tank noise – although generally like the Germans they avoided intense pre-battle activity in order to avert suspicion. By September they were shooting down great numbers of the Germans’ observation balloons. On attack days they struck at enemy infantry and artillery, particularly successfully in the Drocourt–Quéant Switch battle on 2 September. On the same occasion they dropped ammunition to the forward troops by parachute, and they used air drops again when the Flanders attack got bogged down in October, delivering 13 tons of rations in one day. Yet the weather continued to limit airpower’s potential. In the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, for example, the Allies assembled 1,500 aircraft, but poor visibility impeded support for the advance, and did so again during the British assault on the Hindenburg Line. Moreover, until almost the end the German air force was a tough opponent. 30 October 1918 was the heaviest day of air fighting in the entire war, the Germans calling on all available forces against British bomber attacks on one of their principal lines of retreat, the Liège–Namur railway. They lost sixty-seven aircraft and the British forty-one. Yet what the Germans were doing by this stage was concentrating their remaining fighters in formations of fifty or more to protect their communications, and when forced to fight they suffered attrition from which they could no longer recover. During 1918, the Western Front advantage slowly moved in the Allies’ favour, and the surviving German pilots felt increasingly beleaguered. They kept going partly because of a qualitative advantage: the Fokker D-VII and Pfalz D-IIIa were excellent aircraft, and even the finest Allied fighters could not match them. The German official history claimed that the Germans shot down over three times as many Allied aircraft as they lost themselves; according to Hoeppner, between January and September 1918 Germany lost 1,099 aircraft on the Western Front, but the Allies 3,732. But other factors weighed against them, especially a shortage of aviation fuel, which began to bite from June–July, and from September fuel was severely rationed. Moreover, First World War air fighting was extraordinarily resource-intensive. By later standards 1918 airfleets seem very large, but the performance of each aircraft was very low. Enormous numbers of ground crew were needed to keep one aeroplane aloft – pilots were only 2 per cent of the British Royal Flying Corps – and by 1918 the losses meant almost entire fleets had to be replaced every few months. Even if the crews usually survived their machines’ destruction, the strain was immense – no fewer than 30 per cent of French pilots and observers in the war lost their lives, most of them in 1917–18. The Germans were less well placed to withstand these pressures, and by the armistice their aircraft numbers had shrunk to about 2,200, from 3,668 in March, whereas Britain and France had Western Front forces of 2,600 and 3,700 and American strength was 740.

The American air service was still the weakest of the three, even though the AEF built itself up from no military aviation at all to forty-five squadrons. Flying mainly French-manufactured aircraft, the Americans saw action from April 1918 onwards. They engaged in 150 bombing raids, took 18,000 photographs of enemy positions, and lost 235 killed in action.160 French losses were heaviest during May and June, but even so they deployed more planes than the British on 8 August and provided most of the air support at Saint-Mihiel. The British believed they had brought down three times as many German machines as they had lost themselves, but this was a mirror image of the Germans’ claims, and all contemporary estimates tended to be large exaggerations. They also reckoned that between 1 July 1916 and 15 October 1918 they had destroyed 6,361 enemy aircraft compared with France’s 4,011, and it does seem that the Germans sustained most damage in the British sector, in the battles of March–April and August–October, although the British air force was smaller than the French one and more of it was stationed elsewhere. At the time of the armistice 84 British squadrons were supporting the BEF, but 4 were in Italy, 13 in the Middle East, 10 with the Independent Force, 18 engaged in home defence, and others employed in anti-submarine warfare. The Western Front was the highest British priority, but far from overwhelmingly so, and the RAF destroyed 405 enemy machines in Italy, 59 in Salonika, and 81 in Palestine.163 And everywhere in the final phases strafing retreating columns became characteristic, whether Bulgarian, Turkish, or Austrian. In Palestine on 21 September, for example, the RAF dropped 9.25 tons of bombs and fired 56,000 machine-gun rounds.

Although aircraft production was a brand-new industry, Allied manufacturers – and until near the end, also German ones – continued to make good stunning losses. But whereas in 1917 all the Western Front belligerents had placed aircraft among their highest priorities, none hit their output targets. The French in 1918 achieved the world’s largest output of aero-engines and the second largest (some authorities say the largest) of airframes, but even so they fell behind schedule. The British overtook them during the year in monthly airframe output, but the goal of doubling Britain’s Western Front squadrons remained unaccomplished, owing to unexpectedly heavy losses, personnel and labour shortages, and mistakes in engine procurement. The American air force proved smaller than either the Germans or the European Allies had expected, in good measure as a result of production failures. Yet on the other hand, although Germany’s ‘Amerika Programme’ of June 1917, designed nearly to double monthly aircraft output before the Americans arrived in strength, delivered an increase, it too was less than planned. Over the year as a whole the Germans’ enemies outbuilt them by more than two to one. This effort behind the lines – short of target for the Allies but for Germany even more so – was the story behind the story of the air superiority that the Allies finally won in the last weeks of the war.

Czechoslovak Air Force 1918-1970 Part I

World War I

In the First World War, the Czechs served in the Austro-Hungarian army, but mass desertions were widespread. Czechoslovak legions were formed in France, Italy and Russia to fight for Czechoslovak independence from Austria-Hungary. This is why Czech pilots could be found on both sides of the conflict. Many Czech pilots were trained in France due to the activities of M. R. Stefanik – a Slovak scientist, French pilot and one of the founding fathers of Czechoslovakia.

The Creation of Czechoslovak Air Force

In October 1918, former Czech members of Austro-Hungarian squadrons met on the Zofin island in Prague. At that time nobody knew they were founding one of Europe’s distinguished air forces. Many enthusiastic men gathered around sergeant Kostrba, but there were no planes to fly. That’s why it was a matter of high importance to obtain the largest possible number of aircraft for the republic, and find suitable airfields. Several undamaged airplanes were obtained from the former flying school in Cheb. These were flown to a meadow in Strasnice, which became the first Prague airport. Several foreign types were soon added to the original trainers from Cheb.

The new air force was helped significantly by a French donation of 127 aircraft. This help was not quite as unselfish as it looked: France wanted to gain a new market for their military production in newly created Czechoslovakia.

Young Czech experts opposed attempts to make Czechoslovak aviation dependent on France. Especially well-known designers Alois Smolik, Antonin Vlasak, Antonin Husnik, Pavel Benes and Miroslav Hajn had their own ideas for the Czechoslovak air force. These ideas were very specific, because each of them represented an aircraft manufacturer.

This is why the first tests of Czech made aircraft were eagerly awaited. They were supposed to decide the future of the Czechoslovak aviation industry. The test results of Smolik’s S-1 biplane were favorable for the local aircraft development and production. Final decision was taken after S-1 was joined by Aero Ae-02 and Avia BH-1. Local production beat the import.

At this time Czech aircraft were largely unknown and even ignored abroad. The aircraft of WW1 powers prevailed. It is not surprising that the first Prague Aviation Exhibition in 1920 went unnoticed abroad. The Czechs made up for this at the international aviation meeting in Zurich two years later. Alois Jezek, the company pilot of Letov, came in third with his S-3 in the category of precision takeoff and landing. He was also seventh in aerobatics.

Another company – Avia – also made the country famous. Czechoslovakia was among the first countries to start serial production of low-wing fighters. These were Avia BH-3’s, direct successors to the very first low-wing aircraft in the country – Avia BH-1 Experimental. These were followed by the well-known “Boska”: the exceptionally successful Avia BH-5. This type was made famous by doctor Zdenek Lhota with his competition machine marked L-BOSA: thence the nickname of “Boska”.

Doctor Lhota was an aviation enthusiast who quit his successful practice as a lawyer to link his future with the Avia factory. He gained the first trophy for Czechoslovakia in 1923, winning the Brussels International Tourist Aircraft Contest. His skyrocketing career continued until 1926. In that year he flew to Italy to defend the most valued trophy of the day – Coppa d’Italia Cup – which had been held by Avia since Frantisek Fritsch won the contest in 1925. Doctor Lhota flew the BH-11 low-wing monoplane. He disregarded the designers’ instructions and performed headlong flight during the preparations. This caused a crash and Lhota died together with his engineer Volenik. Czechoslovakia won the trophy anyway. Another pair of pilots, Bican and Kinsky, won the contest and defended the valuable trophy for Czechoslovakia.

The aviation of the 1920’s was not just Avia and doctor Lhota. Frantisek Lehky broke the world record at 100 kilometers with standard load on Aero A-12 on September 7, 1924. Karel Fritsch won the above mentioned Coppa d’Italia in Rome in November 1925, and one year later pilot Stanovsky undertook a long distance flight with Aero A-11. This was a trip around Europe across the tip of Africa and Asia Minor.

Captain Malkovsky was among the best Czechoslovak pilots of the late 1920s. He started the tradition of Czech aerobatics. His red Avia BH-21 was the top attraction of most public shows, and he was one of the first pilots in the country to master higher aerobatics. Unfortunately, he got killed at an air show in Karlovy Vary in 1930. Other distinguished personalities of pre-war aerobatics include Hubacek, Novak and Siroky. Frantisek Novak, in particular, is considered the best Czechoslovak aerobatic pilot of all time.

The Avia factory was the avant-garde: their low-wing series was very much ahead of its time. On the other hand, these planes had various problems, especially in that they required careful control. Most pilots were used to comfortable flying with stable biplanes, so there were many accidents with Avia monoplanes. This is why the company had to switch to biplanes. The designers did a good job again building the above mentioned biplane Avia BH-21, made famous by captain Malkovsky. Other famous Avia types included the best Czech serial fighter B-534, as well as modern low-wing planes B-35 and B-135. These last two types were built just before WW2, and were still undergoing further development in 1938 when Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Germany. Later, these planes were seized by the Germans, just like the entire country. Avia B-35 was a very promising design. Its prototype was flown with fixed landing gear, and an engine from the B-534 because the gear and engine intended for this plane were not ready yet. In spite of this, the aircraft achieved the speed of 480 kmph and showed excellent handling qualities. After the German takeover its development continued. It resulted in Avia B-135. Twelve of these machines were sold to Bulgaria in 1941 together with the manufacturing license. It is too bad this plane was developed so late and never had the opportunity to oppose the German army. It can be assumed this plane would have been a worthy opponent for the Messerschmitt.

Avia B-534 was an excellent machine, and its only fault was that it was not replaced in time. It was used by many air forces well into the war. The last biplane kill of WW2 was scored by F. Cyprich flying an Avia B-534 on September 2, 1944. This was in the Slovak uprising, and the plane shot down was a German Ju 52/3m in the area of Radvan.

The Letov factory continued with their successful line started by the Letov S-1 biplane. This light bomber had a wooden airframe with canvas cover. The 1926 S-16 model is among the best of Smolik’s designs. This biplane was used by lieutenant-colonel Skala and engineer Taufr for their long distance flight to Japan. The most modern of Smolik’s design was a full-metal two engine bomber S-50. It was also seized by the Nazis.

The Aero company also started with biplanes. The very first Aero design, the Ae-02 fighter, was a success. It was followed by a reconnaissance biplane A-12, and a very interesting high-wing bomber A-42. The 1930 design was the most modern Czech bomber of the day. Due to some of its faults and the lack of understanding in the military administration, this plane stayed a prototype. Aero also attempted a fighter monoplane A-102, but this project was abandoned when Avia came up with a more modern design (B-35). Aero produced the most modern Czech pre-war bombers (with the exception of Avia’s licensed production of the Soviet SB-2 bomber). These bombers were Aero A-300 and A-304. They too were captured by the Nazis.

These lines create the impression that the Czechoslovak aviation industry only consisted of Avia, Letov and Aero. In reality, there were other companies such as Praga, Tatra, Zlin, Benes-Mraz, as well as designers including Jaroslav Slechta, Karel Tomas, Frantisek Novotny, Robert Nebesar and Jaroslav Lonek.

The Czechoslovak air force and aviation industry played a distinguished role between the wars. It was not the fault of Czech pilots or their machines that they never got the chance to stand up to the enemy.

World War II

Many Czechoslovaks had been in France longer than the Poles because Hitler’s coup de grace on the torso of Czechoslovakia had occurred in March 1939, and from that date a steady stream of men managed to escape the country by a variety of routes and offer their services wherever they would be wanted. Unlike the Poles, however, the occupation of Czechoslovakia had taken place without a fight, so the contingent had to rely entirely on promises of valour, rather than proof of it.

Most of the early escapees headed for Poland, but relations between Poland and Czechoslovakia were ice-cold after the Polish seizure of the Ťšín territory at the time of the Munich vandalism. As a result, many men sought the embrace of Soviet Russia, only to be met with instant internment. However, those who succeeded in crossing Poland’s border discovered that the first obstacle to be overcome was their new national status. For Germany had not merely occupied the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, she had declared the territory to be a Protectorate of the Reich. This meant that all citizens of the two provinces – mainly Czechs – were henceforth citizens of the Third Reich, and Berlin was well within its rights under international law to demand the repatriation of all such persons who might arrive on foreign soil. Similarly, all Slovaks were under intense diplomatic pressure too. At the time of the occupation of the Czech lands, Slovakia had declared herself to be an independent state, but she automatically fell within the orbit of German influence. Political pressure from the new government in Bratislava might have forced neutral or threatened countries to repatriate all Slovaks too, therefore the target nations for the exiles – principally Poland, Romania and Hungary – all had to take into account the political consequences if they aided Czech and Slovak escapees. To the credit of the Polish authorities, however, they rejected the option of sending the men back, but equally they had no intention of provoking Germany by openly integrating them into their forces. A few Czechoslovaks did see action with the Polish Air Force after the German invasion, but these were mainly men who had Polish connections and had chosen to stay behind after the bulk of the contingent left for France at the beginning of August 1939.

France was the natural destination for the Czechoslovak group because she was legally an ally by treaty. French desires to bolster her potential resistance to the Germans had led her during the interwar years to seek alliances in Eastern Europe, mainly with the small states created at the end of the First World War which were vulnerable to renewed German aggression. It seems to have escaped the wit of French diplomats that by following such a policy they were recreating the same pattern of allied encirclement which so haunted Germany before 1914. Nevertheless, French insecurity drove the policy forwards, so by 1921 she had signed an alliance with Poland, followed by the Treaty of Alliance and Friendship with Czechoslovakia in January 1924. This treaty had outlined the military dimensions only, and merely committed the powers to confer on matters of foreign policy. But after the Locarno Pact of 1925, when it became apparent that Germany’s eastern borders were still negotiable, minds in Paris and Prague were suddenly concentrated on the awful prospect of a resurgent Germany, and hence the full alliance – the Treaty of Mutual Assistance – was signed in October 1925. France also strengthened her relations with Yugoslavia and Romania.

It has been argued in the past that British reluctance to commit herself to French security forced the latter to seek her protection elsewhere. Equally, one could level the charge at France that by unilaterally developing her own security system, she was by implication demonstrating little faith in the capacity of the League of Nations to function as an arbiter of international disputes, and this was hardly encouraging behaviour from so prominent a member. Either way, the alliances were made, and in 1939 both the Poles and the Czechoslovaks threw themselves upon the welcome of their ‘ally’.

The attitude of the French towards the Czechoslovaks was little different to the position they adopted towards the Poles. As the men arrived in France they were told quite bluntly that they would be temporarily enlisted in the Foreign Legion, and that this was not an option – refusal to comply would mean expulsion back to the occupied territory. Some men were also told that they faced deportation to the Reich itself. Furthermore, as with the Poles, the French held the military capabilities of the Czechoslovaks in little regard. A series of derogatory articles had been published in the middle 1930s through the military journal Bulletin des armées étrangères until Gen Faucher, a high-placed sympathiser, had them stopped. When the men arrived in the summer of 1939, a confidential report produced for the Czechoslovak Ministry of National Defence (MNO) suggested that the primary holding camp at Agde was little more than an internment area. Although they had enough food, they suffered from lack of accurate war information and the disdain of French officers to all things Czechoslovak. Ignorance rather than blatant contempt may have been the cause here, however. The Alliance of 1924 had allowed for staff talks between the French and the Czechoslovaks, but there had been little consultation at a practical level. The French, it would seem, placed greater faith in Czechoslovakia’s defensive capabilities than her offensive strength.

By most accounts, Legion life was a grim experience. Units were sent to North Africa for training, much of it characteristically brutal, and some of it, perhaps by dint of malicious irony, under German NCOs. After the fall of Poland, limited active service was offered to both army and air personnel, but as with the Poles, the air contingent was used sparingly, joining combat as part of French Air Force detachments rather than as independent units. One reason was that Czechoslovak airmen, having completed basic Legion training, were posted to French colonial bases well away from the forthcoming front line on the Continent.

It was not until the outbreak of war with Germany that France drew on this manpower, but by then it was far too late to successfully integrate air crews who had been lightly trained on outdated equipment. Of approximately 1,000 airmen in France, one estimate places only eighty-five in combat roles, with the others ‘kept well behind the lines’. This conflicts with the official Czechoslovak tally of 123, but this figure also includes men who flew either individually or in small groups with French squadrons. Whichever figure is correct, it is clear that action was seen by very few. In itself, this would have been a grave disappointment to the Czechoslovaks. In a report drafted early in 1940, optimism for a fully independent force with at least one fighter squadron and two bomber squadrons ran high. Prestige was a major motivating factor, for the Czechoslovaks felt able to compete with the best the French Air Force could muster, but they were not to have that chance. Although a Franco-Czechoslovak military agreement was signed in early May 1940, it was little more than window-dressing, and actual usage remained at the levels outlined above.

The undignified scramble which attended the defeat of France in June 1940 ultimately brought these men, and the remainder of the Polish group, to England. One might suppose, not unreasonably, that the British would have undergone a rapid change of tune towards both contingents now that their Continental ally was busily engaged in making a separate peace and an invasion of the British Isles seemed more than a distinct possibility, but it should come as no surprise to discover that very little changed at all. The sudden prospect of many thousands of Slavs fetching up on British shores greatly alarmed those men of influence who had pushed back the earlier commitments to the Poles, and they continued to resist even though there was, quite literally, nowhere else for them to go. Indeed, it is tempting to speculate what would have happened if the energies of one man had not been applied to a programme of assimilation. For it was Churchill who insisted that all of the displaced allies be made welcome – a brave policy for a man whose position as Prime Minister was by no means secure. Many of the people he pointedly directed to facilitate the evacuation and absorption of the allied groups had an intense distrust and dislike of their new ‘allies’, and it will be seen that resistance continued for some time.

The headlong retreat from the Continent after the fall of France was caught by a combined naval operation sometimes referred to as Operation Aerial, though in practice this is an umbrella term for many small, independently arranged sailings ranging from Cherbourg in the north of France down to the Bay of Biscay. While neither as large nor as famous as the Dunkirk evacuations a month earlier, Aerial rescued what remained of the British forces in France and the many tens of thousands of foreign personnel who, actively or otherwise, had been in the service of the French. The figures are impressive: a total of 163,225 men and women during mid-summer 1940, rescued by a flotilla of ships flying the whole range of allied flags, plus some Egyptian and Swedish vessels which were in French ports at the time. In addition to the naval operations, the call went out to innumerable pilots and air crews to fly their machines – or any aircraft available – to Britain. Many of them made the crossing successfully, though there were reports of some French officials disabling planes or refusing to allow allied pilots access to them. The terms of the Armistice dictated by the Germans led to many such ugly scenes as former allies turned against one another, and men of all nationalities have recalled personal moments of anxiety as they desperately tried to get away, only to be hampered by over-zealous Frenchmen, glad that their war was finally over.

In Britain, the War Cabinet watched developments with increasing alarm. On 18 June, Eden drew to the attention of his colleagues that 12,000 Czechoslovak troops were in or near Marseilles, information supplied to him by the Czechoslovak National Committee in London. The following day, Sikorski told Churchill that many thousands of Polish personnel were also in dire need of assistance if they were to reach safety. Eden declared that he had spoken to the Admiralty on both counts, and embarkation plans now existed for Bordeaux and Marseilles. Even so, although he said that he was prepared ‘to take off any Czechoslovak troops who wished to leave’, he added that he ‘would much prefer to embark Polish troops’. This indicates that rescue from French beaches was not entirely conducted under a blanket policy, and that if the situation became desperate, Polish forces would have been given preferential treatment. It has also been claimed that the British were going to give priority to Polish airmen.

The most interesting part of Eden’s speech is the comment about those Czechoslovak troops ‘who wished to leave’. This begs the question, why should they not? In fact, a sizeable proportion did stay behind. Accurate figures for Czechoslovak casualties during the German offensive are difficult to establish due to the immense confusion, but one report estimated that the tally in May and June stood at 20 killed, of which8 died in combat, the others having perished in flying accidents or from unknown causes, and a further 12 unaccounted for. One writer has estimated that fully two-thirds of the Czechoslovak forces stayed in France after the Armistice, many of them choosing voluntary demobilisation, most of them other ranks.

This estimate is firmed up by a Chiefs of Staff report which was submitted to the War Cabinet on 26 July, placing the number of Czechoslovak servicemen then in Britain at a little under 4,000.40 Of these, the bulk were army personnel, but of the 1,000 airmen who had been encamped at Merignac, about three-quarters made their escape. Most of these men were officers or senior flying NCOs, a factor which was to plague the Czechoslovak Air Force throughout its time in Britain as it struggled endlessly against a shortage of ground crew. Furthermore, a good number of Poles chose not to leave France either. The Polish military had a total cohort of some 83,000 men in France at the time of the German attack. It has been calculated that over 27,000 reached England in the main wave; 16,000 were captured, and a further 54,000 remained in France, sought alternative escape routes through Spain, or were stranded in Switzerland with a French corps, this latter figure being placed at 11,000. This left 29,000 men still in France or trying to reach England, and by no means that amount reached Britain later in the summer.

It can be seen from these data that a higher proportion of the Czechoslovak group remained in France, roughly 66 per cent. Even if we allow for all of the 29,000 Poles to have stayed behind, this only accounts for 35 per cent of the total. The issue is clouded further by contemporary figures, for the Chiefs of Staff report placed the number of Poles then in Britain at 14,000 (not 27,000) and the Swiss contingent at 25,000 (not 11,000). Curiously, these figures almost balance each other out, and it is unlikely that we shall ever know the true statistics. What we can be certain of, however, is that the signals received by the British regarding the Czechoslovak numbers were not encouraging. If two-thirds chose to stay and seek reasonable treatment at the hands of the occupying powers, what did this say about the commitment of the Czechoslovaks to continue the fight? This explains Eden’s remark, and his thoughts may well have been informed by earlier prejudices.

For example, in late May 1940, the Czechoslovak Air Attaché in London wrote to the Air Ministry with a feasible scheme to utilise Czechoslovak bomber crews, at that moment entirely redundant in France even though the battle was in full flood. The Attaché, Lt Col Josef Kalla, argued quite strongly for the formation of at least one bomber unit on British soil which could then be sent on specialised missions to attack enemy locations in the Protectorate. Kalla insisted that the men could be hand-picked for their geographical knowledge, and in forwarding the proposal to Boyle on 28 May, Wg Cdr Porri agreed that it would be wrong to ‘leave such potentially useful war personnel idle at this moment’. Fleshing out the idea, he suggested that seventy or eighty pilots could be absorbed into long-distance squadrons as second pilots or observers, but the reply from Boyle was unequivocal:

I very much doubt if this is worth pursuing. We don’t know (1) if there are any pilots worthy of the name and if they are available; (2) their integrity (I am doubtful of many Czechs); (3) whether their terms of agreement with the French makes them available.

Here again we see a senior British officer casting considerable doubt upon the efficiency and trustworthiness of men engaged in the common fight, with scarcely a shred of evidence upon which to base his judgement. Note also that he found it convenient to throw the responsibility back onto the French once more. Even so, he advised Porri to canvass Kalla on the availability of the men, and to explore the possibilities of incorporating those trained on fighters into home squadrons; and it is clear from later correspondence that he intended to pass the whole matter on to a higher power.

Boyle was clearly uneasy about dealing with the Poles and the Czechoslovaks, but Porri acted swiftly and interviewed Kalla, who assured him that the men were fully trained and experienced personnel with total commitment to the war effort. On 10 June Porri replied to Boyle and suggested that perhaps only thirty of the best pilots and an equivalent number of wireless operators and observers should be selected for service ‘after their integrity has been certified by the Czech Legation.’ To support his case, he enlisted the help of the former British Air Attaché to Prague, Gp Capt Frank Beaumont. This officer drafted a truly glowing tribute to the legend of Czechoslovak gallantry, to their ‘fibre, efficiency and indomitable spirit’, but we cannot know if these sentiments had any effect on the opinions held at the Directorate of Intelligence because by this time the French surrender was imminent. A quick response from Boyle merely stated that the matter had been forwarded to Sholto Douglas for a policy decision; and a further note on 17 June effectively shelved the issue altogether, drawing attention to the impending collapse of French resistance and suggesting instead that thoughts should now turn to evacuating all the Czechoslovak personnel from French territory.

Czechoslovak Air Force 1918-1970 Part II

Clearly, the French defeat had saved some high-ranking members of the RAF from a potentially embarrassing decision, but events had overtaken them. Edvard Beneš had already written to the new Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, requesting help with the evacuations, adding that the first group of thirty pilots had landed at Hendon on the night of the 17th. So, whether the Air Ministry wanted the Czechoslovak pilots or not, they were already at the door.

Nor were the Czechoslovaks the only contingent to be so coarsely assessed, for the Poles were also to suffer the lash of British xenophobia. Air Cdre Charles Medhurst became rather alarmed at the prospect of so many Poles arriving on British shores. Medhurst would soon be installed as the first director of a new Air Ministry department custom-built for dealing with the European air contingents, the Directorate of Allied Air Co-operation (DAAC). Early in 1941 this department was given a major overhaul and became the Directorate of Allied Air Co-operation and Foreign Liaison (DAFL), though by that time Medhurst had moved on to other duties. When it became clear at the end of June that very large numbers of Czechoslovak and Polish servicemen would shortly be arriving in the country – not by choice or invitation but by force of circumstances – the suspicious attitudes hardened.

With views such as these, it is quite possible that he had been influenced by Landau’s negative report in March – not that such opinions were by any means unusual in the Air Ministry, as we have seen. He went on to suggest that a definite number of Polish squadrons should be decided upon at that moment, thus limiting places and excluding ‘the unskilled and inferior material’ who might be re-trained for service with Army Air Co-operation Units or ferrying duties. He estimated that no more than 40 per cent of the influx would be ‘really good material’, and surplus stock should be handed over to the Polish Army for absorption. Although Medhurst’s comments on the Czechoslovak contingent are not noted, it might reasonably be assumed that he held them in no higher regard.

On the same day that Medhurst was penning his vision of the future, Sholto Douglas received an assessment of the Czechoslovak air strength. In all, 327 flying personnel had arrived from France, of which approximately 50 per cent were officers. A further 177 ground crew had escaped, though their numbers would soon be swollen by another 300 mechanics believed to be in transit. This gave a rough officers-to-men ratio of one to five, and even the Czechoslovaks admitted that this was far too high for comfort. The reason for the imbalance was that the majority of the men who escaped occupied Czechoslovakia were career fliers, and these in the main tended to be officers or flying NCOs. When the agreements with the French allowed for the reconstitution of the Czechoslovak forces on French territory, Czechs and Slovaks who had otherwise settled in France during the 1930s were mobilised. Of these, Slovaks made up by far the greatest proportion of the ground crew in France, and after the French defeat these were the men who stayed behind together with their comrades in the Czechoslovak Army, returning to their families after the Armistice. It has been calculated that only about 14 per cent of the entire Czechoslovak Air Force which fought from Britain during the war were Slovaks, and the majority of these saw service with 311 (Bomber) Squadron, mainly as gunners, radio operators and ground crew. Therefore, although most of the original ‘French’ contingent of 1,000 men chose evacuation, most were Czechs and about 20 per cent were officers, and this gave rise to some serious problems.

This flurry of correspondence on 3 July was due to a minor conference taking place on the same day, the principal item on the agenda being the absorption of the Czechoslovak airmen into the RAF structure. Porri, Kalla, Gen Karel Janoušek and Lt Col Alois Kubita all agreed that each man should, if possible, be employed within ten days, if only to maintain what was described as ‘excellent morale’. It was also agreed that there existed sufficient trained personnel to form one fighter squadron and one light-bomber squadron immediately, but in the first instance the whole cohort would be sent to a flying station, RAF Cosford, for initial assessment. Frank Beaumont, presumably because of his earlier enthusiasm for the Czechoslovaks, was nominated as commanding officer. Four training aircraft would be supplied at once and, in a revival of the earlier scheme, surplus fliers would be transferred to an Operational Training Unit to be readied for long-range bombing raids on enemy locations within the Protectorate. Men still without work after these selections would be trained for ferrying duties, and once fully operational the new bomber unit would be sent to a south-eastern station for raids against targets in France, preferably with its own fighter support to minimise the language difficulties. This last point was rejected by Sholto Douglas when the report reached him. Striking out the proposal, he commented: ‘We cannot have the Czechs conducting separate little operations of their own.’

Much of the responsibility for assimilating the Poles and Czechoslovaks was now devolving upon Medhurst, yet he was still to be convinced that the RAF’s new allies were worth having. His principal concern was ‘the anxiety and trouble’ it would cause station commanders who would have to administer the Slavs in the early days. It was deemed impossible to allocate dedicated stations at that point in time, so his remedy was to supply liaison officers, one to each unit, and four or five interpreters, if that many could be found. On 7 July, he called for a full list of personnel from both groups. Armed with this information, he said: ‘we shall be able to pick out the best of the available material and grade the rest for future use if and when we want them.’

Thus Medhurst set out his stall. He had been compelled by adverse military circumstances and political decisions made at the highest level to do something with the thousands of Slav exiles streaming in from the Continent, but he did so with great reluctance and considerable apprehension.

A great deal, therefore, had occurred in thirty-eight days. The period began with some senior members of the Air Ministry holding a strong aversion to the creation of even a token Czechoslovak bomber squadron in Britain, and it ended with the establishment of 310 (Czechoslovak) Fighter Squadron at Duxford in Cambridgeshire on 10 July 1940. This was closely followed by the formation of 311 Bomber Squadron at Honington on 29 July, both units using the best-trained personnel from the Czechoslovak group which had arrived from France. No one in July 1940 had any clear idea of what was to be done with these men, and the criticisms did not stop there, as we shall see.


In 1945-46 the two service groups in the RAF from the east, the Czechoslovaks and the Poles, were faced with a serious problem of which each had been aware for some time: the occupation of the home territory at the war’s end by Soviet forces. Yet this was the only mutual element, for the Czechs had a slight advantage in that their troops from Britain had accompanied Patton’s Third Army into Czechoslovakia when it was partially liberated from the north-west. Patton, however, had been forbidden to go further, with the result that Soviet troops had downed tools in the majority of Czechoslovak territory. Even so, the Czechoslovak governmentin-exile under Edvard Beneš had gained a small but significant military foothold when it tried to re-establish its position. But the Polish forces of the west could only watch as Soviet troops swept across their home territory with considerable assistance from the Polish Army of the east.

The long and somewhat tortuous debate over the independence proposals of 1942 threw into stark relief the real relationship between the Air Ministry and the Czechoslovak Air Force in Britain. Yet we must be absolutely clear on one vital point: at no time were the ordinary men and officers of the force implicated in these various disputes during their time in exile. In fact, it has become clear through interviews with veterans that they themselves had no idea that this wrangling and pedantry was going on at the higher level. Even the bitter views of the Air Ministry were primarily directed towards the Czechoslovak High Command and the Beneš government; and as far as the RAF at Group level was concerned, the four squadrons conducted themselves with honour and courage throughout the war. No, these arguments were about two men – Beneš and Ingr – who continually pushed for more even though they knew full well that their chances of success were slight, but in so pushing merely irritated their hosts who for their part believed they had fulfilled all that could be reasonably expected of them.

Besides, in late August 1944 a new crisis had developed, something significant enough to relegate the squabbles over independence to the back of the stage. Acting on instructions received from London, Moscow and local commanders, a force of partisans and state troops in Slovakia turned against German divisions ordered into the country to quell rebel activity. It was a bloody affair that achieved only limited success. Although the rebels managed to hold on to central territories and the Red Army launched a massive offensive along the northern borders, huge German reinforcements crushed the uprising by mid-October at a cost of thousands of lives, both military and civilian.

However, at the start of the uprising, Beneš called for immediate RAF assistance with bombing strategic targets and dropping supplies to the partisans. As with all other communications from the European exiles not of a strictly military nature, the Air Ministry passed the request to the Foreign Office. Early in September, Frank Roberts wrote to the War Cabinet and told it unequivocally that Slovakia was in the Russian zone of the war and any effective help should come from Moscow, not London. This sounded the keynote for the British response: it was always going to be a matter for the Soviets, but how to make this fact plain without alienating the Beneš administration would be the primary task. The Chiefs of Staff replied the following day, aligning themselves with this policy and totally dismissing long-range bombing operations, which, they said, were purely a matter for the Russians. The reactions of the other two major allies were also tentative. The Americans did no more than recognise belligerent rights in Slovakia and assumed that all combatants were under the command of the Czechoslovak government in London. From Moscow, only silence.

Ingr wrote directly to the War Cabinet on 27 September and all but pleaded for allied reinforcements. He said that an uprising in the Protectorate was now imminent and would begin on a signal from London, therefore he needed arms for 10,000 men to be despatched within six nights and the further preparation of supplies for another 50,000–60,000 men within two weeks after the action began, all with the appropriate ammunition, food and medical stores. Eight days later, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke, curtly replied that it was still a matter for the Russians, that all air operations should be carried out by them, and the implication was that future supplies should be a Russian problem also.

A day later, the views of the Special Operations Executive were expressed. It maintained that hitherto the Czechoslovak government had offered ‘little co-operation’ in SOE’s attempts to organise an effective resistance group in Bohemia and Moravia, but now that the war had progressed favourably for the allies, the Beneš administration suddenly wished to ‘pursue the task of promoting such an organisation . . . to avoid the unenviable position of being the one nation which was not internally prepared for liberation’. The report dismissed the claim that the Slovakian action had happened ‘at the behest’ of the Czechoslovak government, and insisted that responsibility rested with the Russians alone. One crumb of comfort for Ingr, however, lay in SOE’s belief that the people of Bohemia and Moravia would nevertheless look to the West for help ‘and expect their arms and assistance to be delivered by us and not the Russians’. The Chiefs of Staff Committee minuted in response that all risings must be supported by advancing allied forces, and since the west was not in a position to assist, all material aid must come from the Russians. The final official decision was that it was a matter for the Soviets to provide active aid, and that the West would continue to encourage the Czechoslovaks by supplying small-scale sabotage groups in the Protectorate.

An exasperated Beneš tackled Nichols about this wall of intransigence, and the latter wrote to Roberts on 23 October, who then passed the letter to the War Cabinet. Beneš was disinterested in the argument that all risings should be supported by advancing Russian troops, but he made it clear that there was a political dimension to the problem which was being virtually ignored:

The President seemed inclined to allow it to be inferred that he would draw his own conclusions from our attitude on this subject; i.e. that we were content to see Czechoslovakia pass within the political sphere of the Soviet Union. He rehearsed, once again, the reasons why his policy had always been, and would always be, to seek assistance and support from both the east and the west, and why it was in the interests of [Britain] that this should be Czechoslovakia’s policy. I replied with some warmth that if he were to draw the conclusion that we were disinterested in Czechoslovakia’s future and that we were quite content to see her enter definitely and permanently into the Soviet sphere of political influence, he was completely mistaken.

One can see from this why Beneš was so aggrieved, and see also how he came to the opinions that he held. He had received not one particle of evidence to suggest that Nichols was as good as his word, and the constant insistence that it was a Soviet matter must surely have convinced him the Britain was finally washing her hands of the entire Czechoslovak ‘problem’.

Only one hope remained for Beneš – the immediate transfer of his total air strength to the zone of operations. Perhaps wisely, he enlisted the help of his Inspector-General. Janoušek approached the Air Ministry with caution, acknowledging that any decision ‘would largely be governed by the reply from the USSR’. But still he asked for at least minimal preparations to begin at once, these being the placing on standby of enough ground personnel to keep the squadrons operational, and the provision of sufficient supplies for a month’s hard fighting. But time was running out for the rebels in Slovakia. Janoušek’s plea was only received at the DAFL on 23 October, and by that time the German reinforcements were spreading havoc across the land.

The Red Army continued to maintain a desperate front in the Carpathian Mountains, and although the uprising itself had been suppressed, the Soviets still needed all the help they could get. In mid-November, Masaryk again asked for the return of the squadrons, and he claimed that the Russians had promised material support and given their full consent to the transfer. It seems unlikely that Masaryk was lying, though no substantiating document has yet come to light to prove the case either way. If he was lying, then he laid himself open to a charge of serious misrepresentation. Given the nervousness felt by the British regarding Soviet attitudes, the result would have been the complete destruction of his credibility. Sinclair was brought up to speed on the matter by Portal, and Sinclair himself wrote to Masaryk with his rejection, arguing that the squadrons were ‘playing an important part in our theatre of the war and we should not be able quickly to replace them’. On the date of this letter, 310 and 313 Fighter Squadrons were both at North Weald, while 312 was at Bradwell Bay. During the month of November, 310 and 313 flew eleven escort missions for bombing raids on Germany, while 312 flew twelve. Apart from training, the rest of the period was largely idle. In other words, they were hardly racing across Europe in support of the liberating armies, so it is difficult to accept that they were somehow indispensable and could not be released given the will to do so.

In any case, Sinclair gently placed most of the emphasis on the problems of supply and maintenance in his letter to Masaryk, but Portal was far more frank. He told Sinclair that the Czechs barely had enough men to run one-and-a-half squadrons by themselves if the British personnel were removed. He also doubted the plan in itself, seeing ‘no sound military case’ for the transfer. He then ended in a vein which is sadly reminiscent of the tone used by the DAFL in 1943:

If the Czechs are set upon transferring their forces then it seems to me that the proper course is to transfer the responsibility of maintaining them from the RAF to the Russians. It would be up to the Russians to provide aircraft and all the other things needed to maintain the squadrons; on the other hand, we should be rid of the commitment at the cost of finding three squadrons’ worth of pilots and 11/2 squadrons’ worth of ground personnel, which would be difficult but not impossible. [Either they] stay where they are or [go] over lock, stock and barrel to the Russians. I do not expect that the Czechs would welcome this alternative since in practice it would probably lead to the virtual disappearance of the Czech Air Force for a considerable time. They would probably be well advised to continue the present arrangements which at least keep the Czech flag flying at no very great cost to themselves.

It seems that Portal was sorely tempted ‘to be rid of the commitment’, but although his views seem to indicate an utter indifference to the fate of the Czechoslovak Air Force, or even the military situation in Slovakia, in essence his was a realistic view at the time. But there is still this impression of ‘the tolerated guest’ about the Air Ministry’s dealings with the Czechoslovak air contingent. Yes, it would have been acceptable if the British had not been inclined to trouble themselves overmuch about a very small force and its limited role in a gigantic war effort; but the language employed and the tone of its delivery frequently conveys the sense of irritation at having to deal with them at all, as if they should sit patiently on the south coast and wait until the end of the war before kicking up any more fuss.

The denouement came in two notes, one from Sinclair to Masaryk, much distilled, which highlighted the problems with the maintenance of communications, and the other from Nichols to Eden, which recorded the former’s conversations with Masaryk and his reaction to the news that Britain was not going to grant any requests whatsoever:

He heard me in silence and his manner betrayed that the answer we had returned was not unexpected. He showed that he appreciated the arguments even if he could not share the conclusions.

With this, the Beneš government’s first attempt to get its air force home came to an end, and it has to be said that, in the

main, the attitude adopted by the British government and the Air Ministry was a reasonable one, given the practicalities of the time. It was perfectly true that the Russians were in the best position to assist the Slovak rising, and even if three squadrons of Spitfires had been flown to that zone, maintaining them would have been almost impossible. To rely on men who had worked on the machines would have meant that only one or, at best, two squadrons would have functioned in any effective sense, and even these would have been totally dependent on spares flown through uncertain communications routes from Italian bases.

Yet it is also possible to see these admittedly valid reasons as little more than smoke to obscure the truth of the matter: that the Air Ministry simply did not wish to incur the extra work at a time when the war was entering its final phase. To transfer the whole contingent to the Russian zone would have meant a complex and laborious demobilisation on the British side, but to send the units east as a detachment of the RAF to fight with the Soviet armies would have raised numerous political complications far in excess of the potential benefit to the war effort. It was therefore easier to do nothing and use logistics as the basis of a negative argument. But one thing of great importance emerges from this episode: the attitude of the British regarding the return of the Czechoslovak Air Force to the Slovakian theatre sent all the wrong signals to Beneš and his government. By continually advising them to seek aid and permission from the Russians, the British were, at this late stage in 1944, making a rod for their own backs. For when less than a year later they were falling over themselves to give assistance to the Czechoslovaks, the latter effectively snubbed them in favour of their Russian allies.