The very first raid on England: LZ38 Bomb Run

“If one could set fire to London in thirty places, then what in a small way was odious would retire before something fine and powerful”, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, January 1915. With those words, the world was ushered into the age of aerial bombardment.

When the Great War broke in Europe on August 1914, the Imperial German Army, as well as the Navy, had their own Luftschiff Zeppelin airship fleets. The first German air attack against England was carried out in December 21st 1914, and, contrary to some accounts, it was not done by a dirigible. A Heinkel-designed Albatross sea plane dropped a pair of twenty pound, fragment bombs in and around the Dover area that fateful day. Although no injuries, and only a minor infrastructure damages were reported, the idea of a German-lead, massive air assault on the British Isles, an idea already sheared by many Brits, rapidly achieved almost mythological status.

From late 1914 to the early spring of 1915, there was profound discussion inside the German military and political establishment regarding the effectiveness of an all out bombing campaign against Great Britain. Not that there were doubts about attacking the British Empire, the question was more precisely: how to do it? On the one hand, there were those, mostly civilian leaders, who were in favor of an all out bombing campaign on military targets only. The other side of the isle belonged to the military which desired a truly universal campaign designed on infrastructure and moral attacks. In order to achieve both of those objectives, Germany must be willing to attack population centers without remorse, the thinking went. As with many major political decision, a compromise was reach were the Zeppelins would indeed operate against both military and civilian targets with the caveat that any attack on populated areas must be short in nature.

German Chancellor, Theodore von Bethmann-Hollweg, fearing a public backlash if civilian causalities started to mount do to the Zeppelin raids, added a clause to the newly adopted air doctrine. “Any attack on civilian centers must be undertaken by a few ships with long intervals between raids”.

On February 12th, German Kaiser Wilhelm II issued an Imperial Order that permitted attacks to take place on oil, petroleum and dock facilities in London. Although the order did not specifically called for the bombing of civilian, because of the inaccuracy of the dirigibles and the close integration in the British capital of civilian houses near the pre-selected target sectors, the decree, for all purposes, permitted airships formations to unleash terror from the skies upon the population of London.

On the afternoon of May 31st 1915, Luftschiff Zeppelin 38 took off from its pen at Brussels-Evere. Its mission profile called for a short bomb run of the important industrial east side of London. After encountering a brief, southwest thunder storm, LZ-38’s commander, Hauptmann Karl Linnarz, ordered a sharp east turn towards England’s south east coast. The massive airship was first sighted over Southend at around 9:15pm. By 10:50pm it was over the storied British capital. Flying at around 10,000 feet, at 10:59, Linnarz gave the order to ‘release bombs’. One hundred and twenty high explosive and incendiary bombs rained down on Stoke Newington and Dalston. Also hit were Hoxton, Whitechapel and Leytonstone.

At 11:01pm, members of the Home Guard, utilizing rudimentary anti-aircraft, commence to fire at Linnarz’s ship. Search lights pounded the London night sky in search of the intruder. Fighters took off in search and destroy missions. In a nut shell, all of the British anti air raid assets were deployed in a matter of just a few minutes. Unfortunately for the defenders, their turn of the century guns were completely ineffective falling to land a single shoot near the huge air platform. Search lights could not locate the ship either and the fighters took so much time getting into the Zeppelin altitude profile that by the time they arrive on one spot, the ship was surely to be somewhere else. Bottom line, no one that fateful night would find LZ-38.
On the ground, the effects of the bombing, seven Londoners perished and twenty five were reported injured, were minimal if compared to the carnage of the now dreaded Western Front, but, unlike the fields of northern France, this was the heart of the British Empire. For the first time since the Dutch raids of 1667, London was subject to bombardment.

The consequences of the attack were profound, not only in England but in Germany as well. England fell uncomfortably vulnerable while the German Reich was emboldened with a new sense of omnipotence. Omnipotence also carried out a felling of wondering. As a pure military operation, the LZ-38 was, at best, a side show. A distraction. No military target was hit during the fifteen minute raid. And although the civilian casualties were relative low for such an inaccurate attack, it did happen.

The image the world took out of LZ-38’s attack was that of a ‘Hun barbarians’. Germans attacking innocent civilians while praying, as was the case with a middle age couple who perish during the Stoke Newington raid while doing its night prayers, was the image British newspapers sold to the world. An image that was only enhanced a few moths later during the battles for Flanders.
Even if it was a military failure, the 38’s attack, German leaders though, proved to Britain, and to rest of the world one thing: that German technical superiority will help win the war for the Central Powers.

Back on England, the reaction assumed a more somber tone. As late as 1913, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, mocked the value of ‘these gaseous monster’ as tools of war. By June 1915, no one in the Admiralty was ridiculing the Zeppelins. As the summers months drag along, the British shifted resources to the development of long range anti aircraft guns, pure interceptors and the establishment of a coordinated airship detection units along the English Channel coast.

On July 11th 1915, Wilhelm lifted what ever constraints the German armed forces operated. Now ‘Huns’ Zeppelins were free to roam the London skyline. All targets around the venerable British capital were to be subjected to bombardment, all of them except St. Paul Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Historic structures that was closely associated with the Kaiser’s English royal relatives.

– Raul Colon

References:

Fire Over England: The German Air Raids in World War I, HG Castle, Secker & Warburg, 1982
Zeppelins Over England, EK Poolman, Evan Brothers 1960

“Building an army in the air, regiments and brigades of winged cavalry on gas driven flying horses”,
The America Air Entry into the Great War

By late 1916, three years of continuing and savage fighting had ravaged much of northern France and the Low Countries. A dreaded stalemate had descended over the Western Front. By January 1917, and after showing early promise, the air campaign that visionaries thought would magically deliver a knockout blow to the enemy’s will to fight, did not materialized and in fact, it can be argued that it exacerbated the horrendous stalemated of the trenches. Aviation pioneer Orville Wright wrote in December 1916 that “neither side has been able to win on account of the part of the aero plane has played. The two sides are apparently equal in their aerial equipment and it seems to me that unless present conditions can be changed, the war will continue for years!” The only hope Orville saw of ending the war promptly was if the Allied achieve “such overwhelming superiority in the air that the Germans’ eyes can be put out” But by early 1917, the only real opportunity to accomplish Orville’s proposition rested with the United States and on April, that possibility grew with America’s entry into the War to End all Wars.

Along with the US entry in the war came boosting remarks by many American commanders about what the new American power could bring to the table. General Squier, the US Army’s top aviation officer remarked that “America would put the Yankee punch in the war and sweep the German lines”. This sentiment was echoed in Washington where the nation’s leaders blindly believed that the American way and know-how will carry the day for the exhausted Allies. No where was the sentiment more palpable than in the War Department, where Secretary of War, Newton Baker declared that “a huge American aviation program would be an expression of America’s traditions of doing things on a splendid scale”. The seeds were planted for the US to develop and deploy the grandest air armada the world had ever seen. And if America planed to deploy such a “splendid force”, they needed a strong willed man to lead it.

A brash, self promoting, aggressive and extremely capable, thirty-seven year old Major named William “Billy” Mitchell was the choice. The young Mitchell became a converted to the cause of air power sometime in the early 1900s. By 1906, he published an article on the Cavalry Journal stating that “Conflicts no doubt will be carried out in the future in the air”. In the spring of 1917, Mitchell and several other Army officers were sent to France as military observers to learn about air tactics and operations. Mitchell heard the news of the US declaration on war while he was traveling in Spain. He immediately boarded the first train he found bound for Paris. In Paris, Mitchell opened a small office with two French military liaison officers attached to it. It was there that the brash Mitchell began to craft numerous air plans and operational packages that he would cable to Washington for further study. In his papers, Mitchell wrote about the size of the Army’s air arm, America’s manufacturing capabilities and his goals for a massive industrial effort concentrated on aircraft design and development. There are rumors, albeit without much evidence to support it so far, that Mitchell played a pivotal role in French Premier Alexandre Ribot’s request to Washington for 4,500 new aircraft, 5,000 pilots and 50,000 mechanics early in the summer of 1917.

The “outrageous” proposal caught the US General Staff completely off-guard. But it did find a sympathetic ear on the President and his allies in the US House of Representatives. In July 1917, the House passed the largest, single piece appropriation bill ($ 640,000,000) in the country’s history. Unfortunately for the Allied, no amount of money was able to cover the fact that by the mid 1910s, America’s industrial base was unable to mass produce the numbers of aircraft the Bill intended. Even with the decision to manufacture only European design, America’s industries were inadequate set up for the task. This was a daunting task for an industry that “only” produced 87 airplanes the previous year. The Americans were years behind Europe. Something “must be done” said a surprise President Wilson. In the spring of 1917, the President appointed Howard E. Coffin to head a committee for the mobilization of the nation’s resources towards mass production of aircraft and its systems. Coffin, a workaholic automobile executive, promptly applied his automaker, assembly line methods to the aircraft industry. He was so sure of his methods that a few months after his appointment, Coffin boosted to The Saturday Evening Post that “fifty thousands open roads to Berlin” will be available very soon. To make his promise a reality, Coffin had to employ several unorthodox methods. Chief among them was the creation of the Spruce Production Regiments. In 1917, the US had a sever shortage of spruce lumber, a vital ingredient in the construction of aircraft frames. To combat this, Coffin recruited 26,500 soldiers and placed them in massive logging camps all along the Pacific Northwest. He also shifted all aircraft engine production into one single model, the American Liberty engine. The Liberty was the brainchild of two auto engine designers, JG Vincent of Packard Motor Car Company and EJ Hall of Hall and Scott Motor Car Company. On May 1917, both men was urgently summoned to Washington and told that they will be sequestered in a hotel room until they came up with a workable and innovating design. With the help of workers from the National Bureau of Standards, they did it in just five days. The first Liberty engine rolled out of the production lines in December.

If designing and building a workable engine turned out to be relative easy, building the aircraft itself turned to be a long and painstaking process. It was soon realized inside Washington circles that the Americans would take years, even a decade, to catch up with the Europeans in aircraft design and development, so the decision was adapted to standardized few of the Europeans models. Planes such as the Italian Caproni bomber, the French SPAD, and the British Bristol fighter as well as the DH4; were viewed as firm and basic concepts from which the massive US industrial base could made “copies” of. But the reality was, as it is today, that aircraft manufacturing and design goes hand in hand. The degree of hand craftsmanship so integrated in all European designs clashed with the American way of mass production. The production problem would lead to countless delays and setbacks on the productions lines. Tens of millions of dollars were “wasted” on producing Italian and British aircraft. For example, the failure to properly adapt the Liberty to heavier Caproni bomber meant that the vaunted Italian bomber would be underpowered for its task. The same goes with the DH4 conversions. The DH4 was the only aircraft type the American mass produce (1.400 units were sent to France), but once it arrived on the front, the American DH4 proved to be an unreliable air platform. The Liberty engine, which was adapted to fit a smaller engine section, gave the plane a bigger torque than its airframe could take. Pilots who try to run the engine at full throttle usually discovered that the plane’s airframe began to disintegrate in mid air. Such was the traumatic experience of American manufactured aircraft than by the end of the war, more than 80% of all US Air Service pilots were flying French made aircraft.

No matter which planes they flight, Mitchell was determined to make the American air effort in the war as grandiose as he could. It must have shock the inflatable Mitchell the news that Brigadier General Benjamin Foulois was appointed Chief of the Air Service, “an artillery man” as Mitchell usually called him. Foulois arrived in France in the fall 1917 ready to take command of one hundred officers and around three hundred men. The next summer saw Foulois take overall command of air operations for the American First Army under the command of “Black Jack” Pershing. For Mitchell the appointment of a “land commander” to such a prestigious (and a post he himself held briefly) was adding insult to injury. He repeatedly clashed with his new leader. So much so that Foulois wrote a letter to Pershing asking him to relive Mitchell from all active commands and to “ship him to the US for good”. Pershing’s response was as pragmatic as his management skills. He knew men like Mitchell would form the cornerstone of his Army’s air arm. Pershing would live with a hotheaded officer as long as he delivers in the battlefield. Foulois was “asked” by Pershing’s chief of staff to accommodate the brash, but highly innovating Mitchell. Foulois abdicated and in July 1918, ceded to the young officer the top tactical command of all United States air forces in Europe.

Mitchell did not have long to bask in the glory of his new command. A few weeks later, Pershing’s First Army was given its own sector on the Western Front, the Saint-Mihiel salient. A twenty four mile long bulge in the lines that the Germans had held since their 1914 Verdun campaign. Now, four years later, the newly arrived Americans were given the task of straightening out the bulge. The situation was tailor made for Mitchell’s newly developed tactics. The brash American would have under his command the largest air armada the world had ever seen, 1,418 aircraft, around 700 of them from French operated squadrons. Their assigned task was more complex than any air effort so far in the conflict. First, they will sweep the salient’s skies of any German fighter paving the way for the second phase of the operation: the strafing of enemy positions. Meanwhile, after achieving air superiority, the artillery spotting package began to pin point German troop concentration areas for artillery bombardment attacks.

On the early hours of September 12th, and in the mist of a strong southwest winds, Mitchell’s massive air armada took to the air. With more than 700 fighters in their fold, the force was prepared to face the new Fokker D.VII, a single seat fighter that came too late to alter the results on the front. In fierce air to air combat, the Allies were able to clear the Saint-Mihiel sector of any organized German resistance. Without fighter cover, the Germans on the ground were sitting ducks. For most of the American offensive, Allied fighters and bombers pounded away at the retrieving German columns near Vigneulles and St. Benoit. “Dripping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams”, recalled the famous American air ace, Eddie Rickenbacker. “Horses fell right and left…The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion” added an exuberated Rickenbacker. The clearing and strafing strategy proved so successful that Mitchell employed it a moth later in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. On October 9th, a force of two hundred bombers and one hundred fighters attacked with impunity the German ground formations in the largest, single daytime raid of the war.

The Saint-Mihiel air success was, for the most part, due to the enormous scarifies and valor exhibit by the American airmen and their ground support personnel. It’s a testament to them and their visionary leaders that the 1918 battle for the important Saint-Mihiel salient resulted in a clear Allied victory instead of another stalemate. And although the Americans did not built an “army in the air”, their new air tactics and the implementation of old concepts by their leaders, more noticeable, the brash Mitchell; accentuated the American entry into the War to End all Wars.

– Raul Colon

References:
The First World War, Hew Strachan, Penguin Books 2003
World War I, HP Willmott, Covent Garden Books, 2003
The Illusion of Victory, Fleming, Basic Books, 2003
The US Air Force: A Complete History, Group West Publishing 2004

The Front Machine Gun War: Spring of 1915 Through Summer 1916

Before the forwarded firing machine gun was introduce in the Western Front, all air to air encounters featured small guns, mostly pistols and single fire rifles, engagements which seldom generated in a shot down. A new method was in need if any of the combatants were to achieve air superiority over the other. The idea for the a nose mounted, forward firing, through the engines propellers; was conceived before the outbreak of hostilities in August 1915 but only France have ordered a model aircraft that was fitted with such a radical system: the Morane Type I. Unfortunately for France, the Type I proved to be an unreliable flying platform and it was quickly replaced by the most modern Type L. It was in a Type L that the famous French aviator Roland Garros (assigned to the Escadrille MS 23) shot down three German airplanes in early April 1915. His “victories” usher in a new age in air operations: the air-to-air combat. Garros’ Type L was fitted with the ingenious component designed by Saulnier. The propeller’s blades were fitted with steel plate deflectors to prevent bullets shooting off them. On the morning of April 19th, Garros’ Morane was shot down behind the German lines. The Germans took the plane and closely examined the propeller steel plates. At the same time, a German engineer named Schneider developed the Interrupter Gear which mechanically prevented the machine gun from firing at the instant a propeller blade passed the gun barrel. This new invention came in just as Anthony Fokker’s new scout, monoplanes were being assembled. Fokker’s team immediately began to fit each new model with the interrupter gear.

Fokker’s latest development was the Eindecker or E type which was a basic conceived scout platform design for reconnaissance patrols but not original intended for air to air encounters. The E type was initially deployed in small numbers in the Fliegerabteilungen. But it was not long before aces such as Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann figured it out how to engage and shot down Allied planes with their new, more maneuverable and, now armed with a workable machine gun system. These men, among others, were the ones who introduced the first series of rudimentary air combat tactics in the history of aviation. As more German pilots learned the art of combat tactics, casualties among the British and French air reconnaissance squadrons increased on an alarming rate. History records that on June 1915, four German E types downed the first French piloted aircraft utilizing the new interrupter as their main attack weapon. The following month, two British’s B.E.2Cs were forced to land by a formation of three E types. Those two encounters marked the first time a scout plane have managed to force out of the air an enemy plane. The stage was set for aerial combat to become more realistic and less romantic.

By early November 1915, the German air to air attacks had gathered them the name of “The Fokker Scourge”. But as with any conflict, the other side began to catch up, although slowly at first. In July 19th, the legendary ace pilot George Guinevere shot down a Fokker E type while flying a Morane/Saulnier Type N. On Christmas Eve, 1915, on his 19th birthday, the young flyer was awarded the distinguished Cross of the Legion d’Honeur. He would go one to shot down six more enemy aircraft before the spring of 1916 was over. But for all of his attributes, Guynemer did not generate the kind of excitement that the German ace Immelmann did. Know as the Eagle of Lille by the French, Immelmann was the first of many pilots (a list that included the most famous combat ace of all times, Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron) Oswald Boelcke instructed in the new arts of combat tactics. Boelcke’s legacy to flying can still be felt today. This bright and discipline German aviator was the first to put into writing the first series of combat maneuvers and counter actions. His actions on and off the battlefield earned him the prestigious Pour le Merite. Boelcke went on to record forty confirm victories before his death on October 28th 1916. Although Boelcke is now one of the most recognized figures of the early days of combat aviation, at the time of the beginning of the Great War, it was Immelmann, who commanded more respect and admiration, even from Germany’s enemies. Immelmann cold and calculated method of maneuvering coupled with the precision and lethality of his firing sequence, made him the more fear ace of his time. In a furious, albeit, short career; Immelmann managed to shot down fifteen Allied aircraft. But as in the case of many of his peers, he could not elude death in the skies. He was downed on June 18th 1916 near the town of Lens.

At first, the British were slow to adjust to the new air reality. Unlike the Germans, and to a lesser extend the French; the British were hesitate to, not only use the synchronize system, but to place grater emphasis on the monoplane design. During the late 1915 through the summer of 1916, British aircraft design and development was concentrated around the biplane platform, and to a lesser extend, the pusher airplane. The British thought, correctly at the time, that a biplane platform offer a much higher operational radius than a monoplane. The biplane design, so went the British thinking, maximized its much large lifting area in order to produce faster times and greater climb rate while preserving an overall high level of agility and structural integrity. The biplane, pusher platform was conceived in order to, not only achieve that profile but to gain an element missing from much of the British aircraft inventory: firepower. With the propeller blade sitting on the back of the airframe, the aircraft’s nose could now be fitted with a heavy, forward firing machine gun. This is how the venerable Airco D.H.2 was born. The D.H.2 design was destined to become the Royal Flying Corps’ (RFC) mainstay aircraft during the last months of 1915 and well into 1916. In fact, it was a squadron of D.H.2s, Number 24; that would become the RFC’s first true dedicated fighter formation. Commanded by Major Lanoe G. Hawker VC, the No. 24 reached French territory on February 1916. Until that time, the RFC was mostly utilizing outdated B.E.2Cs which have suffered tremendous losses in head to head encounters with E types during most of the autumn and winter of 1915. The B.E.2C and its companion platform, the F.E.2B suffered from, among other things, lack of fixed defensive armament and maneuverability speed. The new D.H.2s were not better platforms. Although it possessed a forward firing, heavy machine gun, the D.H.2 had a slow rate of turn and thus became an easy pray for the flock of E types now patrolling the skies above northern France. It is a testament to Hawker and the pilots he lead that they could, almost single handling, acquired air parity with Germany over the Western Front.

– Raul Colon

References:
The First World War, Hew Strachan, Penguin Books 2004
The German Army on the Somme 1914-1916, Jack Sheldon, Pen &Sword Books 2005
The World’s Great Fighters, Roberk Jackson, Chartwell Books 2001

The Allies AAA Guns of the Great War

The concept of an Anti Aircraft Artillery guns was not even in the imagination of field commanders in the early part of the Twenty Century. Aviation was a new field of battle then. A much misunderstood one also. But, as with any new human-developed field, there were countermeasure being develop almost at the same time that the first few planes took to the air. As in the case with many war-related innovations, Germany took the lead in this new area. Between 1908 and 09, Germany demonstrate it that an effective AAA system could be achieved with the available weapon systems. The first rudimentary “Balloon Guns”, as they were then referred to; were developed by either the vaunted Krupp Corporation or the Rheinmetall Group. These pieces were basically a field gun modified to fire at a higher angle mounted on a truck. At the same time, Germany began to encircle its biggest cities with field artillery pieces turned through 360 degrees. These pieces were placed on static angles mounts which enabled them to fire at a higher angle. At the time of the eruption of the Great War, there were so few airplanes available to either side that the development of AAA systems were relegated to the bottom of every nation’s military budget. On those days, weapons budgetary assignments usually went to the Army and Navy. In the case of an Army for example, those funds were use to develop advance armored vehicles, more powerful field and machine guns as well as heavy mortars mainly designed for siege operations.

In August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had only a handful of rudimentary AAA guns on towed mounts. The French were even less prepare with only two modified De Dion Bouton cars fitted with a high angled field gun. The main British AAA gun of the war was the 13th Pounder. The system was a combination of a 13th pounder light field gun mounted on Thornycroft J-type automobile which was one of the most strange-looking vehicles of the entire war. The J-types were fitted with stabilizers and screw jacks in order to prevent the guns’ recoil from overturning the vehicle. Usually, the British will deploy two of those systems accompanied by two other vehicles for the crew, range finding equipment and ammunition. The first of those 13th Pounders began to appear on the Western Front in the summer of 1915. Meanwhile, the French began to use their famous 75 mm field gun in the anti aircraft role, mostly because the gun’s high firing rate. The 75 mm AAA concept was a very simple one. One of such guns was mounted on top of a De Dion automobile fitted with several stabilizers for recoil absorption.

  British 13 Pounder Gun French 75 mm AAA Gun
Shell Weight 13 lb 15.8 lb
Gun Weight 2150 lb 8800 lb
Elevation +80 degrees +70 degrees
Vertical Range 13100′ 15500′
Muzzle Velocity 1700’/second 1740’/second

The French 75 mm gun was extensively use on all fronts by the Allies. In fact, when the first daylight bombings of London commenced in the summer of 1915, the British acquired some of these weapons in an effort to bolster their capital city’s air defenses.

The main problem facing AAA operators was the targeting of, although slow moving, a three dimensional object. At the beginning, the gun was fired directly at the aircraft but by the time the shell arrived at the right altitude, the target would had move on. Gunners began to mitigate this problem by mounting complex sights on all of their weapons. Unfortunately for the gunners, this only duplicated the batteries’s efforts. It was then found simple enough to fit one, centralized sight positioned in the middle of a battery of guns. Once the crew had managed the data related to the height, range and speed of an incoming object; this was passed on to individual targeting gunners who will calibrate its guns towards the target.

It is almost impossible to achieve a reliable figure of the number of downed aircraft by those rudimentary AAA system, but is fair to say the number was a very low one. However, conclusive evidence has shown that AAA-generated fire did altered German reconnaissance patters in the later stages of the war.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Air Power: The Men, Machines and Ideas that Revolutionized War; Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group 2004
Dirty Little Secrets of World War II; James F. Dunnigan & Albert A. Nofi, HarperCollins 1996
Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France; Ernest R. May, Hill And Wang 2001
The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive against Nazi Germany, Robin Neillands, Overlook Press 2001
The Second World War; Edited Sir John Hammerton, Trident Press 2001

The Italian Front: The Air Battle

When Italy entered the Great War on May 1915, she found herself on the ropes almost immediately. The country’s vaunted army, although poorly trained and even worse stocked, (at the time of war Italy could muster thirty five frontline divisions) were suppose to overwhelm their main opponent, Austria-Hungary which only had twenty five deployed divisions along their common border. If a battle will to take place, the Italian Alps will most likely be the battle ground, so went the Italian military thinking at the time. The largely Italian Alpine frontier was manned by four army groups deployed on the Cadore, Carnia, Isonzo and Trentino sectors. All of the sectors, it was on the Isonzo combat area were the Italian deployed the bulk of its armed forces, fourteen divisions strong plus seven more on tactical reserve. Although the Italians possessed a clear man power superiority over the Austrians, they did lagged behind their opponents in the number of field artilleries deployed. A critical aspect on those days. Meanwhile, in the air, Italy’s Aeronautica del Regio Eserciti (Royal Army Air Service) RAAS; was better prepare than its army counterpart to take on their new task. Equipped with fourteen fully maned and equipped squadriglie fitted with Nieuports, Bleriots and Murice Farmans; they could more than hold their own against a perceived undermanned and under-equipped Austrian-Hungary air force.

When the Italians finally marched on toward war, it was their reconnaissance squadrons that paved the way for their initial success on the field. As the fight began to settled in, most of it on the eastern flank of the Isonzo River, the RAAS not only provided the army with much needed information on enemy troop and equipment movements, but it also commenced to assert itself on the air. At this time of the battle, the Italians meet little, if any at all, organized resistance from the Austrians. They controlled the air from day one. After achieving air dominance, Italian planes began to bomb and harass their enemy on the ground at regular bases. Its not coincident that it was in this sector of the front that the Italians made their biggest gains during the first months of fighting. Unfortunately for the them, the series of major defeats suffered by the embattle Russian army at Galicia, left the door open for the Austrian to redistribute their forces towards the Isonzo thus commencing the what is viewed as the second battle for that important river bank. This time around, the Austrian air force was augmented by newly received German Rumplers and Aviatik C-1s planes, which provided their field artillery batteries with excellent spotting and targeting information. Meanwhile, the Italian air force had been reorganized to, not only provide valuable reconnaissance data, but to interdict more directly on the ground with concentrating bombing and strafing missions. For this types of missions, the Italians depended heavily on their inventory of Macchis, Caudrons and Farmans. By the spring of 1916, the Italians had reduce the strength of their scout or fighting squadrons and concentrated their efforts on developing dedicated bombing units. In the accordance with the important of the Isonzo front, only two squadriglie of Nieuport 11s were deployed to defend the Santa Caterina and Aquileia sectors, while the rest were assigned to the Isonzo theater of operations. It was on this, the beginning of the second Isonzo Battle, that the Italians first encountered real Austrian opposition in the air. The Austrians, embolden by the arrival of a few number of Fokker E-I monoplanes and a growing number of Lohner and Lloyds reconnaissance platforms, began to challenge Italian air dominance. Those planes were supplemented by an infusion of Fokker B-II, D-I and D-II. The D-I, known simply as the “Star-Strutter” by its pilots, would become the symbol of the whole Austrian air effort over the Isonzo. Their main squadron, Fliegerkompanie Number 12, lead by the charismatic Austrian ace Godwin Brumowski; was assigned the task of preparing the Austrians to engage the Italians on an even base for the first time. A task he took with pride. In just a few months, Brumowski had develop the tactics that would serve the Austrians and some Germans pilots, for the rest of the war on the Italian theater. His Italian strategic counterpart, Francesco Baracca, also had develop a series of formations and tactics that enable him to lead all Italian pilots with thirty four confirm air victories. His efforts paved the way for Italy’s bombing campaign along the river bank. He died while flying a mission on June 18th 1918. For his brilliant exploits the RAAS employed his combat emblem after his death. In fact, the Cavallino Rampante, Baracca’s pride symbol, is still in use by the Italian air force today. A testament to Baracca’s contribution, not only to the war effort, but to Italy’s overall air force structure.

During the winter of 1916-17, the morale of the Italian ground troops plumed to an all time low. That particular winter brought with it one of the most unforgiven and coldest seasons ever experienced in Italy. Hundreds of troops died of frost bites, pneumonia and other weather-related illnesses. Adding to this misery was the sad state of the Italian army. Troops were exhausted, supplies were running short and the much needed equipment was constantly beaking up. In sum, the Italians were on the brink of collapsing. The Austrians were not fearing that well either. Their major operation at Bainsizza took a heavy toll on their now overextended army. The end result of the battle for the strategic Plateau not only decimated the ranks of the Austrian army but prompted the introduction of German combat troops into the Italian sector. As a direct result, a massive German buildup all along the Isonzo front caused the defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto on October 1917. The defeat at Caporetto brought the entire Italian-held front to the brink of collapsing. The situation was so critical that the situation forced the Allies to sent precious resources, both human and materials, to bolster the front. Eleven British and French first line divisions were rushed to Italy. Their air assets combined four British Royal Air Force squadrons with three French escadrilles. They arrived just in time. Their combine might, added to the extraordinary bravery of the Italian troops, help the Allies to fend off the Germans and Austrians at Piave. Meanwhile on the, air the fighting turned from tough to brutal. By this time the Italians had again reorganized its forces around the scout squadriglie. Eight Hanriot HD-1, four SPAD S.VII and three Nieuports not fully manned squadrons were forced into the battle. The Italians also deployed fourteen squadriglie fitted with Caproni bombers. In January 1918, what was probably Italy’s best light bomber platform of the war, the much anticipated Ansaldo bomber; began to arrive to the front in large numbers. Italian pilots, most noticeable, Baracca, made a career taking up their Austrians counterparts above the Isonzo during the later stages of 1917. On the other side of the front, Brumowski had changed his Fliegerkompanie’s aircraft from D-I to the more robust and better armed Albatross D-III. He and fellow Austrian ace, Julius Arigi, who would rack up thirty two kills before the war ended; were also engaging the numerical superior Italians with somewhat of a lesser success ratio. All of them scored the majority of their victories during the Caporetto offensive.

After Caporetto, the Italians, now embolden by an ever increasing number of Allied troops and aircraft; began a series of major offensive attacks that finally broke the back of the Austrian army at Isonzo. It took eleven major battles to decide the outcome of Isonzo, but in the end, the Italians and their Allies proved their worth. After August 1917, no Austrian major attempt was ever orchestrated against Italy’s Isonzo flank, freezing up Italian troops to be re-deployed to other war fronts. The end of Caporetto also marked the end of the bulk of the air battles over Isonzo. Several minor actions did take place, but they paled in comparison to other previous encounters. The battle toll for the Italians was enormous. Nearly 40,000 were killed, 108,000 wounded and 18,000 more taken prisoners. The Austrians lost 10,000 killed, 45,000 wounded and 30,000 were taken prisoners. A high toll for both side, but a bigger number for the already stretched thin Austrians.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Battles of World War I, Martin Marix Evans, The Crowood Press 2004
The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare, Editor Chris Bishop, Amber Books 2001
World War I, Ian Westwell, Hermes House 2005

Air Effort over Gallipoli: A Brief Look at the Air Campaign over the Dardanelles

On March 1915, with the cloud of an impending invasion in the Dardanelles sector by the Western Allies looming over the Ottoman Empire, the Turks began preparations to repel the invading force. An Army Group was created for the sole purpose of opposing, and eventually, repelling the expected Allied invasion force. On March 25th, 1915 the Turkish 5th Army was formed, it was to be lead by the head of Germany’s military mission in Turkey, Field General der Kavalleri Otto Limon von Sanders. The field headquarters’ for 5th Army was placed in the small town of Gallipoli. At the time of its conception, 5th Army did not possess any air assets in its inventory. Despite constants pleads by their leaders, no aircraft was a tolled to the 5th until mid July 1915. At the time, military aviation was not completely comprehended by either Turkish leader. They failed to fully embrace the promise the aircraft could deliver on the battlefield. As a result, initial requirement for an air component to 5th Army was rather sluggish.

When the land war officially commenced on the Dardanelles Strait in April 25th, 1915 with the landing of British and French forces on the Gallipoli Peninsula, the Ottoman air situation was precarious at best. At the time of the landing, the 5th possessed only three Albatross B.I and one Rumpler B.I aircraft. The Albatross B.I was a reconnaissance aircraft that first enter front-line service in the late 1913. The B.I was one of the first aircraft to be built with the setting of the pilot and observer in a tandem configuration (side-by-side). The idea behind such a radical design was to provide the observer with the same observation environment as the pilot. The fuselage was 28′ 1″ in length with a height of 11′ 6″. The wingspan was 46′ 11″ and the complete wing of the Albatross B.I compromise an impressive 46′ 11″. Its power plant was one Mercedes DI engine capable of generating up to 100hp. The DI provided the Albatross with top speeds of only 60mph. The B.I climb rate was estimated at 200′ per minute. Maximum take-off weight was 1,800lbs and the B.I had an operational range of 400 miles. On the other hand, the Rumpler B.I was one of the first of what Germany called battleship planes. The Rumpler B.I used by the Ottomans over Gallipoli was a Type 4A platform with a length in fuselage of 27′ 6″ and a height of 10′ 1″. Its wingspan covered an area of 42′ 6″. The Rumpler was powered by a Mercedes DI-Krei engine capable of providing the aircraft with 104hp; this power propelled the Rumpler at speeds of around 75-79mph. As it was the case with the Albatross, the Rumpler was manned by a crew of two, but instead of being sited side-by-side, in the Rumpler the pilot sat in the rear of the main fuselage with the observer right behind the main propeller mechanism. The Rumpler initially took to the skies in the summer of 1914 and promptly when on to establish many endurance records for the Imperial German Army. All of these aircraft samples were provided by Germany in an attempt o booster Turkish resolve and moral on the eve of the invasion.

By March 18th, the Allies had assembled an impressive battle fleet near the entrance of the Bozcaada Harbor. There were no less than twelfth battleships, three to four battle cruisers, a small number of repair ships, probably two; and twenty one destroyers and submarines. They were lead into the harbor by a small flotilla of ten fishing boats. Their sole mission was to sweep the harbor of unexploded mines. There, on the morning of the 18th, was where the first air mission of the campaign by the Ottomans took place. The sole Rumpler sample in possession of the Turks took to the air from a recently completed airfield located almost 3km behind the Straits, on a reconnaissance mission to scan the harbor and to monitor the movements of the massive Allied armada. What the German pilots on the Rumpler reported back to their Turkish leaders was to fright them. The Allies were poised to pass thru the Dardanelles at full speed with a much larger fleet than early was estimated. Official Turkish records showed that the combine British and French naval force on the Strait compromised of fourteen front line battleships, four heavy cruisers, two repair ships, two hospital vessels and other minor vessels such as destroyers and submarines (twenty one in all). After the report was made public to top Turkish Army commanders, the full alarm was sounded at 3:35pm on the afternoon of the 18th.

Before the Allies decided to launch their major naval offensive, scouts planes were send out looking for the locations of mines in the Straits. At that time, standard sea mines were located at depth of 26′-3″. They could be easy recognized from altitudes up to 3,280′. Unfortunately for the Allies, during their aircraft recon missions, there were prevailing heavy seas in the operational area. Thus, the aircrews reported back to their home ships that the area appeared to be mine-clear, a tragic mistake that would lead to a massive loss of life in the upcoming hours. The Irresistible, Bouvet, and Ocean were sunk immediately after contact with mines, while the Inflexible, Suffren and Gaulois were heavily damaged. The ships that made thru began a massive naval artillery barrage over Turkish costal defenses. The relative short range of the Ottoman’s costal batteries meant that the Allied barrages were almost uncontested. At around 4:00pm, the Turks launched another scout mission over the Straits. A second sortie, by the Rumpler, took part two and half hours later. Both of these missions were intended to locate Allied ships west of Limni. During the first fly, it was observed that the Allied armada stationed there was commencing retreating maneuvers from that specific area of operations, a fact confirmed by the second patrol aircraft. The next four days saw a grounding of the Turkish aircraft due to bad weather. Activity picked up in the morning hours of the 22nd, when a Turkish artillery shell hit a Royal Navy scout plane, forcing it to crash land at the Bay of Saroz. Another Turkish patrol mission was performed in the early morning hours of the 26th, again to Limni, and again the scout plane reported the Allied pullout of the area. On this same day, the Turkish air forces on the Gallipoli area received two additional B1. Albatross courtesy of the German government.

While the Ottoman’s crude air arm was primarily use as a reconnaissance toll, it provided to the Turks valuable information in regards to the whereabouts of the Allied armada, the French and British air effort was more offensive in its profile. At the beginning of hostilities in Gallipoli, the French stationed a squadron or Escadrille consisting of eight Farman HF.20 aircraft stationed at Bozcaada. The HF.20 was a remarkable simple aircraft to operate and maintain but was terrible under powered. They were design and manufactured by Henri Farman. The HF.20 had a wooden fuselage of 28′-9″ in length with a height of 10′-0″. The wing structure, covered with canvas as was the practice on those days, encompassed 51′-0″. The aircraft was propelled to the air by a Gnome 7A 7 cylinder, air cooled rotary engine capable of generating 80hp. With this engine, the HF.20 reached speeds up to 65mph. Service ceiling was a pedestrian 9,000′. But while the aircraft lacked enough speed to operate against the newest German pursuit planes, the HF.20 had the ability to be airborne for 3hrs and 20mins, and important trait in their mission profile which was primarily scouting duties. In case an enemy aircraft got to close, the 20 was armed with a rudimentary 0.30in machine gun. The plane was operated by a crew of two and its maximum take-off weight was 1,565lb.

The allies were more flexible than the Turks in the use of aircraft. While Turkish commanders halted air operations in case of rain or extensive clouds, Allied aircraft took-off for operations on the same environment. The Allies also were more incline to let its aircraft wander longer distances that their adversaries. Thus enhancing their reconnaissance field area. In addition to these differences, the Allies were more receptive to the use of new technology, especially aerial cameras. Those factors tilted the air campaign in favor of the much prepared French and British pilots. At the beginning of the Expedition, the Allied main aircraft was the Sopwith Tabloid seaplane. The Tabloid was built to compete in the seaplane races spurring all around the British Isles on those days. The Tabloid airframe height was 10′-0″ with a length of 23′-0″. The biplane wingspan covered an area of 25′-6″. A single Gnome Monosoupape 9 cylinder rotary engine capable of producing 100hp was the planes power plant. This engine gave the Tabloid a maximum speed capability of 92mph. Operational range was 315 miles while its top ceiling was 15,000′. The aircraft was manned by only one individual and fully loaded weight it at 1,580lbs. Early versions of the Tabloid were unarmed, but as the type was require entering service, a 0.303″ Lewis machine gun was fitted on it. The Sopwith were ferry to the Gallipoli area by the newest acquisition of the Royal Navy, HMS Ark Royal. The world’s first true aircraft carrier. Beside the Ark Royal, the cruisers Dories and Minerva, as well as the seaplane tenders Hector (a converted balloon tender) and Manica; operated the Tabloid in the area. Seaplane operations were still in its infancies and many accidents were reported in handling these seaplanes, most of them occurred while the plane was lowered to the sea or retrieved from it. The first Tabloids, a contingent of four, were ferry to Bozcaada aboard the Ark Royal in the early days of February. After a brief period in the area, the Ark Royal headed back to the Mediterranean Sea because of the ship captain’s fear of a German U-boat attack.

As the land battle intensifies, the air component was just staring. As stated before, in those early days of the Gallipoli campaign, both side utilized the aircraft as means to gather information on the enemy’s position and possible movements. But as the battles moved forward, the aircraft evolved with it. As early as April 29th, German pilots were dropping hand-held bombs on British positions inland. Although they caused minor, if any, damage, the effect on the troops fighting on the ground was profound. Another Turkish coup occurred when an Albatross flew over HMS Euryalus and drooped three grenade-type bombs. All of them missed the cruiser, but the aircraft was able to relay the location of the ship to its headquarters. Within a few hours, Turkish costal guns were zeroing on the Euryalus. As the land battle grew, the air effort did the same. During much of May and June, both sides tried, unsuccessful, to use the aircraft as a stable bombing platform against their opponent troop concentrations. The situation on the ground was beginning to turn against the invading allies. In late June, the Turks stopped an Allied advance up to the peninsula. The situation on the air also appeared to be in favor of the Ottomans. On July 5th, they received from Germany, the first two samples of the vaunted Gotha Airplane. The aircraft were assigned to Canakkale Fortress Command instead of the Turkish 5th Army Command. The 5th retained the small number of Rumpler and Albatross already assigned to them by Istanbul officials. The arrival of the Gotha created a sense of victory in the part of the Turks and anxiety in the part of the French and British. The Gotha was truly a remarkable piece of hardware. It ranks among the best aircraft ever developed. This group was named the German Navy Special Detachment Naval Aircraft Group. The group’s first commander was Lieutenant Ludwing Preussner, he was soon replaced by Captain Tahsin. On July 13th, the group was reinforced by four new aircraft.

Meanwhile on the ground, both the allies and the Turks and Germans were preparing for the next phase of the campaign. The allied intention now was the cutting off the link between Istanbul and the Ottoman Army. To achieve this, on the late hours of August 6th, the allies landed at Anafartalar and on the northern part of Ariburn. To assist the allied invasion, four Bristol, six B.E. 2cs, and six Morane aircraft joined the 2nd R.N.A.S. squadron. At the same time, the Turks were having air problems. The main situation for them was the allocation of their planes. The Ottomans planned to solve the problem by transferring all air assets from the Germans to the Turks. New German planes will come directly to Turkish formation instead of being allocated to the German military in Turkey. While the Ottoman air force’s administrative situation was being handling. The Turks ground forces faced a three front assault in the Gallipoli peninsula. The first front was at the entrance of the strait in the Rumelian area, the second was at Ariburnu and the third one was at Anafartalar. Thousand of soldiers from both sides were fighting on these narrow areas. On the morning of August 10th, the Anafartalar Front Group, commanded by the famous Mustafa Kemal, opened one of the bloodiest battles in the whole Great War. The ground effort was joined by Fliegerabteilung 1 squadron, which also continued to give close air support to the 5th Army. The squadron, which was composed from a mixture of German and Turkish pilots, made on September 18th, one of the most astonish discoveries of the campaign. The squadron commander, Captain Korner, reported on that morning that he saw for the first time a decrease in the number of enemy forces at Gallipoli.

On the European Continent, the session of quick German victories on the Easter Front pushed Bulgaria to join the Central Power in September 1916. With Bulgaria in their pocket, and the collapse of the Serb resistance a month later, the Germans were now able to re-supply the Ottomans with aircraft, parts and ammunition from the vast railroad system now available to them. A fact not lost on the Allied high command. As the flow of aircraft began to increase, so did the Turks air force capabilities. By late September, the Ottomans had setup another seaplane base near Canakkale. From there, the five assigned Gothas WD2 seaplanes began to harass the allied-held airfields of Imbros and Teredos.

By August 10th, the allies knew the situation on the peninsula had deteriorated to a point that they could not sustain reliable combat operations on the Conkbayiri line. On the other front, Anafartalar, the allies attacked once more on the morning of August 13th, but the assault was turned back with relative ease. By the 17th, the third and last great battle for Anafartalar was over. Despite the fact that all the allied vessels in the area bombarded the Turkish defensive positions, the Ottomans held. As series of bloody battles continued until Lord Kitchener visited the Gallipoli beachhead on November 14th. A month later, the French and British high commands decided to abandon the campaign. Now they would retreat to the sea as fast as possible. During the retreat operation, the R.N.A.S. Number 2 squadron, augmented by kite balloons from balloon-carrying ships; gave cover to the ground and naval forces. They were able to keep the rapidly expanded Ottoman air force in check during most of the retreat. What the Turks could not do on aerial combat, they did on reconnaissance operations. Observation reports from the abandoned allied positions revealed to them the scope of their enemy’s retreat. Occasionally, Turkish seaplanes were deployed in bombing missions over the allied camps and artillery positions. In all, Turkish seaplanes dropped more than thirty three free-fall bombs hitting seventeen different targets.

When the allies finally evacuated the peninsula in January 1916, the aerial defense of the entire Dardanelles sector of operations were assigned to the newly formed Dardanelles Squadron. Meanwhile, Fliegerabteilung Number 1 remained in constant combat readiness at Galata in case the allies decided to re-assault the peninsula. A feat no invader has attempted since.

– Raul Colon

References:

Air Power, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group 2004
The Churchill War Papers, Martin Gilbert, Norton 1993
Air Power and War Rights, JM Spaight, Longmans 1924