Operation Merkur: The Invasion of Crete,
the Air Component

The battle for the Island of Crete was a short, but violent affair. Its air component was, and its still is, one of the lesser known aspects of this campaign. In November 1940, and after months of internal discussion, the first British Royal Army detachments began to arrive on the Island. The first installation to be set up by the newly arrived British was the Marine Naval Base Defense Organization (MNBDO) based at Suda Bay in the northern west part of the Island. The newly formed defense organization was manned by an all British detachment utilizing rudimentary anti-aircraft systems. At that early time, no permanent Royal Air Force (RAF) squadron was assigned to the Suda Bay base, or Island for that matter. Nut this did meant that the British were air deprived on Crete. Stationed at Suda was the Fleet Air Arm No. 805 squadron with its complement of Fairey Fulmars, Gloster Sea Gladiators and Brewster F2A Buffaloes.

As the overall situation in Europe began to deteriorate for the Allies, the RAF Air Staff concluded that an efficient air defense of Crete was out of the force’s realm due to the more pressing need of securing the British Home Island from the ever more daring German Luftwaffe’s raids. This does not meant that the RAF abandoned the air defense of the Island, but no effort to bolster the over stretched RAF Middle East Command were made during the last part of 1940 or the spring of 1941. With an ever increasing operational scope area, the Command was original responsible for air operations in and around Libya, Syria, Iraq, Abyssinia, Somaliland, and the Western Desert, then in the winter 1940, the RAF expanded the Command’s converge area to include the whole of Greece, the island of Malta and parts of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea; the Command became the most active air unit of the RAF outside the one defending the Homeland. Although bigger in scope and responsibility, the RAF was slow to augment it with top of the line aircraft and supporting systems. Much of the Command’s air inventory centered on a few obsolete Hurricane Mk Is and a short supply of P-40Bs, both of which were inferior in all aspects to the new Spitfire Mk VB being held exclusively for the defense of Great Britain.

By the end of April 1941, the No. 805 began air operations attacking German and Italian airfields on Rhodes and Scarpanto as well strafing German shipping vessels going in and out of the Aegean Sea. Early that month, the RAF Fighter and Bomber Commands transferred several units of Blenheim Mk Ifs, Hurricanes and Gladiators for air operations in Crete. Because of the infusion of more fighter-type of aircraft, the Luftwaffe was forced to shift its axis of attack, from bombing Allied, more specifically, British shipping; they now will concentrate its main effort in the destruction of all British airfields on the Island. From that moment on, all of the Luftwaffe’s assets in the Greece Theater of operations were diverted to Crete. Swarms of He 111H3s, Do 17Z-2s, Bf 109Es and Bf 110Cs began to pound allied air and naval installations all along the Island since the beginning of May. By the middle of the month, with the allied air and ground situation in Crete deteriorating by the day and with a new phase in the air war over Continental Europe drawing an ever bigger piece of the RAF’s assets, the British Army High Command decided to pull the plug on all offensive air operations in the area. The decision was followed by a total withdraw of all airplanes from Suda and the smaller airfields.

Meanwhile, the Germans, who began to plan the invasion on April 1941, had accelerated their pace. Although there were some opposition the very concept of invasion. In fact, several Germans middle commanders expressed reservations about redirecting precious resources to an endeavor they considered secondary in importance. Nevertheless, the plans were drawn up. As it was devised, 22,750 elite German airborne troops would be employed in the assault. Most of them would be parachuted along the northern coast of the Island. Heraklion, Rethimnon and Maleme were the areas selected by the Germans. Following the parachute troops was the air transport element of the force which consisted of Junkers Ju 52/3m4s. The whole undertaken would have the distinction of being the largest airborne operation the world has ever seen, that was until June 6th 1944 and the invasion of Occupy France.

Operations began in mid May 1941 with a massive German bombardment of British, Commonwealth and Greek forces entrenched all along the road from Kastelli to Sitia. Junkers Ju 87B-2s from the I/Stukageschwader No. 2, commanded by Oberstleutnant Oskar Dinort, joined Heinkel He 111H-3s from Kampfgeschwader 26 and Junkers Ju 88As from III/Kampfgeschwader 30 in the saturation bombing of allied position that lasted until May 20th, the day the airborne assault commenced. In the wee hours of the morning, DFS 230s gliders originally assigned to land its troops at Maleme and Canea missed their landing zones and instead landed near the fortified 5th New Zealand Brigade stationed on Hill 107. A similar fate was encounter by parachutes from the III/FJSTR who landed atop a British held post at the rear of the town of Heraklion. Almost 400 German airborne troops were killed in action around the by now, deserted town in just seven hours. Ferocious opposition was also encountered by the invaders at Galatas and the northern side of Canea. It was a fight the Germans did not envisioned when the planned the attack. But a sudden and unexpected event changed the invader’s fortunes the next day. During the night of the 20th, the NX 5th Brigade, which so stubbornly held back repeated German attempt to take the strategic hill, decided to abandon their advantageous position during the late hours of the night paving the way for a consolidation of German forces and resources around the Hill.

With a secure foothold on the Island, the Fallschrimjager elements on the ground were boosted by troops from Generalleutnant Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision. With such an overwhelming force converging on the British overstretch defensive line; the order was giving on the 25th to retreat towards the small village of Sfakia located in the south part of Crete. After five days of brutal, delaying fighting, most of the British and New Zealand forces were evacuated from Sfakia. When the fighting ended on the 31st, the Germans were in full control of the Island, except for a few spots around Pirgos and Leapetra where Greek defenders fought a valiant but unsuccessful guerrilla-type of war.

As the fighting was raging on the Island, the British Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was use to support, at first, the defender’s positions and later on, to evacuate the war weary troops. During the retreating operation, the HMS Formidable was the only air asset employed by the RN. Her full complement of 18 Fulmar Mk Is were employ in covering the evacuation beach head. This lack of support from the Navy, and the relative small and obsolete RAF’s contribution to the campaign only augmented the state of despair felt through the Allied ranks during the invasion. Because, if was true that the Germans airborne troops were having a hard time securing the Island, the Luftwaffe was having a field day against the RAF and Navy. Overall, Luftwaffe aircraft shotdown 39 RAF planes while at the same time, the force’s bombers wreaked havoc with the vaunted Royal Navy at Crete. The British navy came away from the battle with three of its top armed cruisers and six destroyers sunk. A battleship, an aircraft carrier, six cruisers and eight escort destroyers were badly damaged. On the ground, near 15,000 British and Commonwealth troops were either capture or killed. Meanwhile, the German loss 1,990 and had 2,320 troops missing during the operation. On the air, the Luftwaffe’s field day came with a price. The brave British pilots, flying obsolete fighters and medium range bombers took out almost 200 (198) German planes, most of them Ju 52/3ms.

In the end, Operation Merkur, although successful in the mater that the Germans were able to consolidate their southern flank, took longer than expected thus pushing the starting day for the most grandiose military operation of all time, Operation Barbarossa, for a full moth. A month that would cost the Wehrmacht dearly in the winter ahead.

– Raul Colon

References:
Air Power: The men, machines and ideas that revolutionized war, from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books, 2004
The illustrated Guide to Naval Aircraft, Francis Crosby, Hermes House, 2008
The Second World War, Sir John Hammerton, Trident Press International, 2000

Air Defense

In the last two decades, only a handful of combat aircraft have been downed by anti aircraft system. This has more to do with the fact that the majority of the high intensity conflict developed during that time mostly involved the use of aircraft designed in the United States. These aircraft were employing the latest in electronic and avionics packages as well as more advance electronic countermeasure systems. Add to this fact the new air tactics developed and you have a combination of circumstances that had enable Western aircraft to defeat and, in most cases, destroy enemy’s anti aircraft systems (AAS). Not since the early days of the Korean War (almost fifty years ago) had any US Army or Western-equipped ground force been attacked from the air. In fact, today the US Army maintains only a two level air defense system instead of the multi layer umbrella it use to have since World War II. Today’s Army used the short range, shoulder firing Stinger missile as its only short area air defense platform. For longer range, the Army employs an upgraded version of the Patriot system. The fact that the US Army only employs those two systems is a testament to the US Air Force ability to achieve and maintain air superiority over its enemies during the past six decades. It also a rebuff of the glomming predictions made after the Great War in 1918.

During the first three decades of air traffic military commanders thought that early air platforms such as the famous German, British or French mono and biplanes were easy prays to ground based gun fire. They believed that the fragility of those early aircraft would be shatter by a powerful, ground delivery shell or shells. But to the amazement of many commanders and visionaries, those glom scenarios never materialized over the Western or Easter front. Nevertheless, Luftwaffe leaders in Germany prior to the start of World War II still clung to the idea of shooting down a high percent of enemy aircraft with AAS fire. On the center of their assumptions was famous German 88mm anti aircraft gun shell. Engineers and commanders alike believed that it would take only fifty rounds of this impressive shell to down an incoming plane. Unfortunately for the Germans, the reality turned out to be very different. Between the summer of 1940 until the end of hostilities in May 1945, the German rate of AAS shoot down remain remarkable constant at 12,000 shells per one aircraft. Again, the prognostication of the demise of the aircraft proved to be greatly exaggerated. Notwithstanding the German experience, commanders of all nations again asserted the demise of the aircraft when the first anti aircraft missile batteries began to appear in the early 1950s. But again their confidence in those ground based system was misplaced. During the 1960s and 1970s and in the mist of highly involved conflicts such as the Vietnam War and the series of wars Israel and its Arab neighbors played out during those years the missile to downed aircraft ratio was about one per fifty launched missiles. Although the ratio appears to have decreased dramatically, close examination of the data shows that the improvement was not as sharp as originally seen. First, the fifty missiles use to down an aircraft had the same cost as 12,000 of the dreaded 88mm shells did in the early 1940s. Second and more importantly to the development of AAS is the fact that for the first time in history, incoming aircraft have develop the tactic of engaging AAS instead of going around them.

Although the ratio may not show it, AAS does have proved to be a real defensive deterrent, but not the all stopping platform early visionaries thought it will be. As it is currently employ a sophisticated AAS is develop with the idea of attrition. To make aircraft packages suffer as many losses as possible in order to deter further incursions. It is also design to maneuver the aircraft’s path towards a designated ‘target’ area where a concentrated fire could be muster on only one sector. A by product to these two factors is the profile the AAS force an aircraft to follow. In order to avoid heavy saturated AAS sectors, an incoming aircraft must follow a low altitude flight profile. Such a profile will expose the aircraft to a heavy concentration of small arms fire. It is in this, low level profile, that the majority of aircraft are shut down by small caliber, ground based fire. Case in point: North Vietnam. In that high intensity conflict, over eighty percent of all aircraft loss was due to low altitude gun fire. The ratio was somewhat smaller in the 1973 Israeli-Arab war. Almost fifty percent of Israeli jets lost were by heavy machine gun fire. One static that remained very similar in both conflicts was the shell-to-down aircraft ratio. Almost 10,000 machine gun shells were needed to shutdown a single airplane. A ratio closely similar to that achieved during Word War II. Fixed wing aircraft are not the only flying platform affected by low-level ground fire. Helicopters are probably the most exposed flying machine. Their profile: a low flying pattern can not be altered to counter AAS’ small caliber fire. They run low to the ground to avoid such system, thus making them perfect targets for small fire. Unlike the fix wing aircraft, their main threat does not come from heavy machine gun fire, it comes from RPGs (rocket propelled grenade). For RPGs to work, they need the helicopter to be real close (one hundred meters or closer) to have any opportunity to engage an incoming helicopter. Helicopter pilots know this. They know that the most likely areas for RPG attacks are city streets, canyons and river lines. Pilots also chance routinely their takeoff and landing patterns while operating from forward bases. They don’t use the same incursion pattern twice and when they fly in formations, they do it with a 500 meter+ gap between air platforms.

No matter which system the ground defense units utilized, there are four procedures that will always be employed. It’s a four step defense drill aimed to shutdown and incoming aircraft. The first step is to detect the air platform. Any aircraft, no matter how big they are, is just a “blimp” in the vastness of the sky. It is also because this vastness that AAS’s radars can not cover the entire skyline forcing AAS’s managers to select entry points. These “points” represent the expected incursion areas an incoming aircraft should take. Planners as well as pilots know this and they try to minimize the detection area by engaging AAS’s radars with advance electronic countermeasures (EC). If ECs did not suppress the enemy’s ability to read the aircraft, then the pilot will use the old age trick to “decking his airplane”. Most conventional radars arrays can not look below their profile scope altitude (usually between 100 and 300 meters from the ground) thus providing the aircraft with an invisible window. But this window is not without peril. It is in this low altitude area were the heavy concentration of small arm, ground fire occur. The third measure an aircraft can have to avoid detection is stealth. A technology currently use by the United States on its massive B-2 Stealth Bomber, the new F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter and to a lesser extent, on the broad based, F-35 Lighting II program. Others countries are now poise to break into the US stealth monopoly mainly with unmanned platforms. To counter the low flying tactic, in the early 1960s the US develop the concept of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). AWACSs platforms not only can be forward-looking post, but because they are airborne, they have look-down capabilities as well. Unfortunately, the sheer vastness of the earth comes into play here too. It is virtually impossible for any current radar system, ground based or airborne, to cover the complete spectrum of the sky.

If an incoming aircraft is detected, the next step is to acquire it. Before engaging any aircraft, AAS’s operators must make sure that the plane is either a friend or foe and then proceed to chart a flying course for it. The charting of the course is one of the most important aspects of the AAS procedures. In order to engage the aircraft, the AAS need to have it within range of its surface to air (SAM) batteries. Detection and acquisition of target have a longer range spectrum that that of the aircraft’s weapon package. This is significant because the AAS is design to engage and destroy any aircraft as far from its territory or defense area as possible. Most conventional ground radar can detect an aircraft up to 550Km away and at a top altitude of 30Km. On the edge of the 550 spectrum, the probability of making an accurate identification of the aircraft is between 45 to 55 percent. The percent improve as the aircraft move forward the radar covering zone. For example, at 375Km, the probability ratio jumps at 90%, high number, but ones that still leaves a substantial margin for error. This “probability window” between the top operational range of the radar and the 90% point is the area where pilots began to implement their countermeasures (EC or low flying patterns). An advance AAS can detect and acquire an aircraft within one minute of the incursion. If both areas are successfully taken, then the AAS shifts towards the tracking phase. Is essential for the AAS to track the inbound aircraft long enough until System’s batteries can be brought to beard. The tracking aspect of the AAS engagement begins while the aircraft is outside the System’s weapon platforms operational range. Once inside the weapons’ spectrum, the first platform to be employed is the long range SAMs. After, the guns aspect of the system is engaged. Because guns are shorter range weapons, their radars have to track the aircraft the longest. The last step of the AAS procedure is the destruction of the aircraft. Even if the AAS is successful in detecting, acquiring and tracking and incoming plane, this does not translate into a successful engagement. In fact, the majority of engagements favor the aircraft. Modern flying machines are built very advance defensive systems that it makes it difficult to shutdown even by a direct hit.

Air defense systems are built around various sub-systems such as missile, small caliber projectiles and even nuclear weapons. The size and complexity of the missile system varies depending of the warhead. The smaller missiles, primarily the low altitude, short distance portable systems utilized a small warhead (5-7 pounds). These missiles are very limited due to their lack of size and proximity fuse (a radar mechanism that allows the missile to explode near the target). The smaller missiles are heat seeking devices that in most of the times can only be fire from behind the aircraft’s tail. Frequently, portable operators had only a few seconds (10-12) to fire its missile before the aircraft is out of the weapon’s range. This kind of missiles operated at altitude no greater than 1,000 meters. Because the smallness of the warhead, the portable missiles have to hit the target almost in the middle of the fuselage or on one of its engines in order to be able to shot it down. Meanwhile, Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA) gun’s shell ranged between 20 and 57mm in size. The gun shells need a direct hit to cause any type of damage. Even if a single hit the target, it probably will not be enough to bring down the plane. This is why guns shells are use in high quantities. Shells’ sizes also vary. A regular 20mm shell weight in at around 3.5 ounces, 23mm weight 7 ounces, 40mm weight 30 ounces and the much powerful 100 ounces. The guns are usually aligns in a multi-barrel configuration. Two prime examples of these platforms are the vaunted Russian ZSU-23 which mounts four 23mm guns and can fire up to 60 shells per second. The second battery is the Swiss-made GEPARD. The GEPARD consisted of two 35mm guns delivering a rate of 18 shells per minute. These weapons and other like them are use primarily against helicopters and slow moving, fixed aircraft. But upgrade in helicopter armor has made the use of the lower caliber guns almost obsolete. AAS also deploy some of the largest guns ever devised. The much discussed 75mm (and even larger systems) are a real threat to any airborne platform. These large shells usually have a proximity fuse and fragmentation warheads. 75mm and beyond shells are expensive to develop, thus they are not widely available. Also, as with the other shells, although not in the same ratio, 75mm shells need to be use in numbers to achieve the AAS objective. Gun engagement procedure has not changed much since the days of Word War II. A massive barrage of shells is thrown up in the area where the radar predicts an aircraft will be appearing. The main user of these high caliber weapons are the Russians along with many of their client states. The AAS also employs a large number of small caliber weapons. This use goes all the way back to the Great War when attacked ground troops would fire machine guns, rifles and even handguns in the air. This was not only done to down an aircraft but also to boots morale in the dreaded Western Front. The “fight back” idea behind the small caliber attack still permeates battlefields today. Although is extremely rear to bring down an aircraft utilizing such mechanism, most of the times pilots are unaware of small caliber action, it still can inflict some damages to the airframe.

The other spectrum of the weapons employed by an advance AAS is the large warhead area. Larger missiles are often more elaborated in its design and weight more heavily than its portable counterparts. Their warheads are designed to, not only hit the target with more accuracy, but in a case of a near miss, to inflict as heavy damage to the aircraft as possible. Some large warhead missiles utilized a shaped charge to direct a flight of high velocity metal fragments towards and aircraft. These type of warheads can be a deadly weapon is its makes it within a 100m radius of the aircraft. These warheads also carry the much use proximity fuse which detonates near, not directly, the aircraft. Heavy or large warheads are also use to shot at helicopters. In fact, the use of dedicated anti-tank weapons is being closely studied by military planners as a way of shooting slow moving, low flying air platform. The same reverse concept was utilized by the Germans during WW II. On that occasion, the Nazis employ their vaunted 88mm AAA in the tank busting role with great success.

The deployment of an integrated AAS is done accordingly to the System’s operational range and mobility profile. The shorter range weapon platforms always accompanied the combat formations while the lesser mobile systems are set up around 100Km behind the front in order to protect supply depots and other rear-area installations needed for the continuation of the war effort. The main key for an effective AAS alignment is the layer concept. The saturation with multiple depth areas at different altitudes is what it makes the AAS concept work more proficiently. Case in point: the USSR. During the hey days of the Cold War, Russian generals and commanders were well aware that in a case of war, they would most likely lose control over the skies, so they develop a multilayer integrated system to deter allied incursions. The first layer was saturated with ZSU-23 cannons with a 2Km firing range augmented by a variety of less accurate should fire missile systems. After the cannons, lay the once feared SA-9 (8Km range) missile batteries. The ground troops were covered by SA-7/14 and its 4Km practical range. Immediately after the front, the Soviet placed SA-8s (12Km range) and SA-10s (50Km) to protect the more sensitive areas supplying and maintaining their front line troops. Today’s pragmatic budget realities have made such multilayer systems almost obsolete in the East. Today, much of the former USSR’s supplied countries still use some kind of layering systems based on portable SAMs, small number of medium-to-long range missile batteries and a few cannons. Their Western counterparts on the other hand, relied on an integrated systems of short-medium and long range missile batteries augmented by the ultimate air defense weapon system: air superiority.

During the past five decades the only interaction between aircraft and AAS has pitted Western-developed air platforms against Soviet design air defense systems. These encounters has demonstrated to some extend the ineffectiveness of the Soviet designed systems. During the past fifty years, the hit, not the shutdown, ratio for a Soviet-made SAM was 50-1. Meanwhile, the Western’s SAMs ratio is almost 65% hit ratio. This is an amazing discrepancy figure that speaks volumes to the technological development of each side. In the 1970s Israel-Arab wars, Israeli Hawk SAM batteries require less than five shots for every hit on a Soviet-build, Arab operated combat jet. While the Arabs in the 1973 war fired 2,100 missile hitting 85 (4%) aircraft. Unfortunately 45 of the hit aircraft were Arabs. The US developed Stinger missiles has an even more impressive hit percentage (near 50%) in an impressive twenty plus year career. The incredible success ratio of Western aircraft against Soviet-developed AAS is the product of two convening forces. First and foremost, the Western aircraft are more advanced than the AAS they are facing. They also are usually fitted with the latest electronic countermeasure packages relegating the effectiveness of the AAS’ radar arrays. Finally, the Soviet/Russian AAS developed systems are designed with a more “fixed” operational profile than a mobile providing the incursion aircraft a window to operate. In the late 1980s the USSR constructed the most advance AAS network outside the one operated by its satellites states in Eastern Europe. Seventy six radar arrays, twenty four missile batteries locations and one hundred interceptor missiles were erected and deployed in the African country of Angola. Manned by East German technicians, the defenses proved worthless against the incursions of South Africa’s more westernize Air Force. The trend continued in both Gulf Wars (1991-2003) and the Afghanistan operation (2001) where the United State’s Air Force was able to suppress Russian developed AAS with amazing accuracy.

The chart below list the most utilized air defense systems. The Soviet/Russian developed weapon platforms are named after NATO’s codenames. The Effectiveness Ratio is a 1 to 100 scale that estimates the weapon’s combat accuracy and reliability. The Maximum Range is the top altitude a system can operate without loosing its overall capability.

WEAPON DESCRIPTION COUNTRY E. RATIO MAX ALTITUDE RANGE
Avenger Self Propelled System US 37 4800 m 5 km
Chaparral Self Propelled System US 18 1000 5
Hawk Mobile System US 45 11000 30
Advance Hawk System US 70 18000 40
M/42 Self Propelled System US 10 1500 3
Nike/Hercules Mobile System US 51 50000 150
Patriot Self Propelled System US 100 24000 60
Phalanx Naval-Based System US 47 2000 2
Sea Sparrow RIM-7h Naval System US 32 5000 5
SM2 ER Aegis Naval-Based System US 104 28000 180
SM2 MR Naval-Based System US 94 25000 150
Stinger Mobile System US 31 4800 5
Tartar RIM24b Naval-Based System US 33 20000 20
Vulcan Self Propelled System US 10 2000 m 2 km
Rapier Self Propelled System Great Britain 28 3000 7
Roland Self Propelled System Germany 39 3000 6
Regular .50 caliber gun mechanism Germany 5 1000 1
AMX 30SA Self Propelled System France 27 2000 4
Crotale Self Propelled System France 29 3550 9
SA-6 Self Propeller System Russia 36 2400 28
SA-9 Self Propelled System Russia 12 6100 8
SA-7 Fix/Portable System Russia 11 4500 6
SA-15 Self Propelled System Russia 21 6000 12
SA-8 Self Propelled System Russia 26 12000 15
SA-14 Fix/Portable System Russia 16 6000 6
SA-11 Self Propelled System Russia 48 14000 30
SA-18 Fix/Portable System Russia 25 3500 5
SA-17 Self Propelled System Russia 31 3500 32
SA-16 Fix/Portable System Russia 20 3500 5
SA-4 Mobile System Russia 32 20000 50
SA-13 Self Propelled System Russia 20 3500 5
SA-19 Self Propelled System Russia 24 8000 12
ADMG-630 Naval-Based System Russia 28 2000 2
SA-3Self Propelled System Russia 32 25000 25
SA-5 Self Propelled System Russia 65 30500 250
SA-10 Fix/Mobile System Russia 45 30000 45
SA-10(MU2) Self Propelled System Russia 94 24000 200
SA-12 Fix/Mobile System Russia 36 25000 100
SA-N3 Naval-Based System Russia 35 25000 30
SAN3 Upgraded Naval-Based System Russia 38 25000 55
SA-2 Fix/Mobile System Russia 23 24000 50
ZPU-4 Self Propelled System Russia 10 1400 1
ZSU-23 Self Propelled System Russia 19 2000 3
ZSU-57 Self Propelled System Russia 14 4000 6
Gepard Self Propelled System Switzerland 23 2000 4

Today’s air forces dedicate a great deal of training to the suppression of AASs. Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses or SEAD is one of the most sophisticated missions any aircraft can undertake. But, as important as SEAD is, the mission is not undertook without extensive research. Like air forces, AAS are encountering a greater threat from incoming cruise missiles such as the US Tomahawk. The US and Russia to a lesser extend, are either upgrading existing platforms or are developing new, purely designed Anti Ballistic Missile Systems (ABMS). One example of this latest development is the much publicized Patriot System. The Patriot first demonstrated its ability to, not only shutdown incoming aircraft, but to intercept ballistic missiles. A trend that should continue to develop as the situation on the air changes from the current, aircraft-based profile.

– Raul Colon

References:
Jane’s Aircraft Recognition Guide, Gunter Endres and Mike Gething, HaperCollins Publishing 2002
Skunk Works, Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos, Back-Bay Books 1994
US Strategic and Defensive Missile System 1950-2004, Mark A. Berhow, Osprey Publishing 2005
Russian Aviation and Air Power in the 20th Century, Robin Highanm (editor), Frank Cass 1998

An Overlook of the Air Defense
of Great Britain: 1946-1985

With the end of World War II, there were a sense in most political and society circles inside Great Britain that the country could gradually scale down its high military alert status. Unfortunately for them, the Berlin crisis of 1948 and the Korean War just two years later, rekindle in the country the spectrum of Hitler’s Blitz of 1940. As a direct result of those two crises, the Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command strength remained about the same levels of WW II thought much of the 1950s. Fighter Command achieved its pick in total air assets in 1957. Total inventory that summer topped 600 operational fighters augmented by a powerful network of airfields and radar arrays. That year also marked a major policy shift inside the Ministry of Defense. This “shift” would drain Great Britain of its air defense independency in a couple of decades.

In the autumn of 1957, policymakers began evaluation the Soviet Union’s nuclear missile capacity and the threat it actually represent to the U.K. At the time, the United States enjoyed an overwhelming nuclear deterrence force. This overwhelming arsenal will lead Britain’s leaders to adopt a new policy. A policy referred to as Trip-Wire. As part as of the policy review, it was decided that from 1957 onward, the biggest threat facing Britain was the vulnerability of its nuclear delivery force: the newly developed V-bomber fleet, to the USSR’s ever increasing nuclear ballistic missile force. It was suggested that a fighter shield, augmented by a powerful detection network ringing the V-bomber’s bases could provide the force enough time to take-off and to commence its retaliatory profile. The “trip-wire” strategy was coupled with Britain’s ability to deliver a massive nuclear strike deep inside the USSR. It was because of Britain’s leaders strong believes in trip-wire that Fighter Command did not proceed with many advance research and development projects. It also did not saw the necessity to invest high amounts of money into fighter concepts and/or procurement of new systems. But as the Soviet’s ballistic missile capacity grew, both policies began to show their flaws. Because of the projected parity between American and Soviet nuclear arsenals, leaders in the UK began to understand that the next conflict will most likely be fought on a mix (conventional and nuclear) environment. Britain’s whole defense posture will now be asked to operate in a non-nuclear environment as well as an atomic one. This change in position destroyed the operating assumption of the trip-wire strategy and, to a lesser extend, that of massive retaliation.

In the mid 1960s it was recognized by the MoD that a Soviet conventional air threat was larger than their nuclear one. Unfortunately for Britain, years of following “trip-wire” have reduced its operational air defense structure to a bare minimum. It was not just a matter of the numbers of available airplanes it was also the matter of the shortness of men and material. Years of budgetary constraints and of neglecting available systems left Britain’s once powerful radar and control network in a state of flux. Adding to this problem was the lack of operational airfields. By the end of 1945, the UK possessed one airfield per every twenty kilometers. A ratio that held true for most of the 1950s. But by the late 1960s there were only a handful of them. Most of the decommissioned airfields were handed over to municipalities for land development.

The arrival of the new air-deployed stand-off weapon platforms in the early seventies forced air defenses specialist to think on a wider band range. Air defenses operational ranges were now pushed out hundreds of kilometers in order to engage the launching aircraft in time. By now the British were assigned by the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT) and Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) a much wider air defense sector. Beside the Home Islands sector, the UK was now responsible for the vital Easter Atlantic area which extend from the Channel to the North Norwegian Sea in the north and out very nearly to the coast of Iceland in the west. This was a tall order for any country to assume. If NATO’s fears were ever to be realized then Britain’s air resources in the mid-seventies would prove inadequate for the task because as a rearward base for SACEUR and a forward base for SACANT, roles that were assigned to England because of its geographical position rather than by air defense strategies, they would be a prime target for the numerical superior Soviet Red Air Force.

SACLANT called for a British operational profile that beside air defense included anti-submarine warfare and air patrols in support of maritime shipping operations in the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas. SACLANT’s command also viewed the UK as its home base for mounting flack support for its strike fleet in case it needed to fight its way against the Soviet sea and air assets deployed on the North Norwegian Sea. The other command, SACEUR planned to use the UK as a mounting base for much of the deeper air penetration effort just inside the forward edge of the Soviet’s battle sector in Continental Europe. In the case of war, the UK bases would have also served as the “world” largest air bridge. Much as it happened during World War II, Great Britain would act as a gigantic aircraft carrier. Heavy lift aircraft and jumbo commercial planes carrying thousand of troops and supplies would make the UK its staging area before deployment to the Continent. It was in this area where the British Air Defence Commander asserted its independence, because it was his Command that was assigned the task of defending the air bridge.

Thank God war never erupted in the mid to late 1960s because the RAF was woefully unprepared for it. Years of attrition and budgetary constraints have left the RAF Fighter Command a “shell of its former self”. Gone was the force that once could blank most of the sky above Europe. But the situation began to improve in the mid 1970s. By the fall of 1976, the RAF as a whole was beginning to rise from the ashes. That same year the RAF added two additional air defense squadrons fitted with upgraded Lighting interceptors. The RAF was also in the process of making the F-4 Phantoms the backbone of its air defense component. It had re-deployed the vaunted Bloodhound surface-to-air missile system (SAM) to the south east corner of the country for low level protection. Riper SAMs were deployed to the country’s northern areas to guard the vital bomber bases. If the present looked good to the RAF’s top brass, the future was looking even better. In the pipelines laid the much anticipated Tornado air superior platform which was schedule to replace the Phantom by the mid 1980s. The force was also expecting delivery of its coveted Nimrod Airborne Early Warning aircraft. Major improvements were also performed to the extremely important radar and communication network. The RAF was also planning the deployment of a new and flexible jamming resisting data link connecting the United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment (UKADGE) with fighter base control centers and early detection platforms. UKADGE was a control and communication interface system that worked through a mutually supporting hardened control centers and accepted digitized data from all sensors (ground, early warning stations, sea bases sensors and airborne radar platforms) British, French and NATO. The system gave Air Defense Commander an immediate profile of the air threat and resources available to counter it.

The mid 1970s also produce another, equally important, development; a shift in the political environment in Great Britain. The massive Soviet expansion of the early 1970s brought the threat of conventional destruction to the UK’s door step. In this climate, the RAF was able to find many influential allies inside the House of Commons who were able to push forward a very ambitious air expansion program. Of course, any major rearmament effort not only needs monetary support but a more boarder production base that not only include production lines, but also the training of thousand of skill workers and their support facilities. Nevertheless, rearmament began in the late 1970s at a frantic pace. By the summer of 1985 delivery of Tornado units were considerable thanks to the efforts of around-the-clock production lines. That same year, the Nimrod began entering front line service replacing the aged Shackleton (AEW). New SAM batteries were deployed to every operational airfield. New systems, such as the EUROSAM, a joint British-French venture, were also in the process of being incorporated into the RAF’s air defense structure. For air-to-air refueling, the RAF began to utilize the recently converted V-10 transport aircraft as well as a small number of converted Boeing jets.

Despite these and other measures taken by the RAF in during the first half of the 1980s, the force was still short of the skilled manpower needed to run its new and sophisticated systems. As the seventies gave way to the eighties, more and more RAF pilots and specialized ground personnel began to emigrate into the more profitable private sector. Despite several pay increased, such as the one of 1978, RAF retention rates began decrease dramatically. By the middle of the decade, turnover rates in the RAF began to stabilize and, in some areas (ground support personnel) it actually stopped. It’s safe to say that by 1985 the RAF’s operational capabilities were back to its immediate post WW II levels. Total number of available aircraft by 1985 fluctuated between 850 and 1,100 (including the Royal Navy) with more (around 200) on reserve alter status. Its once vaunted radar detection system was again one of the world’s top technological marvels and its active and reserve manpower was increasing in ratio with the country’s population for the first time in three decades. Not small feats considering the turmoil of the 1960s and 70s.

– Raul Colon

References:
The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare, Editor Chris Bishop, Amber Books 2001
The Classic Book on Military Strategy, BH Liddell Hart, Penguin Book 1991
How to Make War, James F. Dunnigan, HarperCollins Books 1993

“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 End of Germany’s Air Effort
on the Western Front

In the wake of the Germans ineffective and disastrous Spring Offensive of March-June 1918, most of the Allied commanders and even their political leaders, believed that Germany was a defeated country. Its Army has just suffered a massive defeat. A defeat that would certainly means the end of Germany as a cohering state. But if this was the case in June 1918, the situation in the air did not match the one in the ground. After the June offensive, many German Jastas (squadrons) operating on the Western Front were removed from the frontline to rear areas for re-fitting and rearmament purposes. New aircraft types such as the impressive Fokker D VII were assigned to those refitted units in greater numbers than early. In fact, by the end of June 1918, more than 270 D VII were distributed among the frontline Jastas. In an ironic twist of fate, by the time of the great German ace Manfred von Richthofen’s death on April 21st JG-1 was in the process of assimilating their first D VII units. The timeline coincided, more or less, with the arrival of the first American scout units over the desecrated grounds of the Western Front. The first American operational squadron actually arrived on February. Assigned to the Villeneuve sector, they carried out their first combat sortie on the March 15th when Raoul Lufbery led an unarmed squadron of Nieuport XXVIIIs over the dreaded front. Later on their tour on France, the Americans traded their Nieuports for the more agile SPAD S.XIII. Although the Americans entered the conflict on its later stages, their pilots displayed a flair for the dramatic very characteristic of their counterparts in the ground. Lead by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker (26 confirm victories) and Lieutenant Frank Luke (21) the American began raking up an impressive victory total during the summer and autumn of 1918 confirming their status as one of the most successful flying groups of the times.

Back in the front, on August 18th Great Britain launched its massive offensive along the Flanders section. The “Big Push” as the operation was referred to, was supplemented by thirteen squadrons of S.E.5as, seventeen equipped with Sopwith Camels, six with Bristol, fourteen with R.E.8s, four of the newly introduced Sopwith Dolphins, four with F.K.8s, five with D.H.4s, fourteen composed of the D.H. 9/9A platform, seven with F.E. 2b/d and seven additional units armed with the O/400 heavy bomber. In all, the British commenced their offensive with over 1,700 available aircraft assigned to 91 squadrons. Meanwhile, on July 18th, the French launched its massive counterattack on its section of the front. During the early days of 1918, the Aeronautique Militaire underwent a total makeover that included the much talked about unit standardization among its escadrilles. By mid June, most of France forward deployed escadrilles were fitted with the SPAD XIII scout pursue plane. Forty nine escadrilles, augmented another ten reserve units were available for the “push east”. In addition, the French possesses twenty three dedicated bomber escadrilles flying the vaunted Breguet 14, the Caproni 10 and the underrated Voisin 10. One hundred and forty additional units were available for action. Those supplemental escadrilles came from the French Army and its Navy counterpart. The total amount of aircraft available in the front dwarfed anything the Germans can deploy on that sector. Over 2,800 units were operational by the summer. The number would increase to 3,225 units by the time hostilities ceased. With such an overwhelming number, the Allies were able to achieve and maintain air superiority over the whole front from June onward.

On the other side of the lines, the Germans did not sit idle while her enemies regrouped. In the summer, Germany created a fourth Jagdgeschwader, JG-2, under the command of a veteran Bavarian fighter pilot, Ritter Eduard von Schleich. The Pour le Merite winner (1917) brought in an organizational structure sorely needed by Germany’s air force. Schleich implemented new formations and introduced new tactics that, for a time at least, gave Germany a fighting chance in the air. His JG-2 was able to inflict heavy losses to their enemies on limited actions. One example of it was the American Metz offensive of September 20th. In action over the small French town, JG-2’s pilots downed eighty nine American airplanes in just two days. Unfortunately for Germany, those types of accomplishments were an aberration rather than the norm it use to be.

By September, the Royal Air Force was in the early stages of receiving the first units of the much anticipated Sopwith Snipe dedicated fighter. The advance Snipe design was to prove so successful that the RAF utilized on its colonials affairs for up to twenty years after the war. Although ordered in great numbers and its delivery hastened by RAF commanders, the Snipe came too late into the conflict to directly affect the outcome. Nevertheless, the Snipe monoplane did leaved an impression on the war. On October 27th, Major WG Baker, a pilot attached to the RCF’s No. 201 squadron, flying patrol patterns over the Forte de Mormal, encountered seventeen enemy airplanes. Rather than turn back his monoplane, young Baker engaged the Germans and was able to down four (confirmed) aircraft, including three Fokker D VIIs; before he was force to land on the British side of the dreaded trenches. For his actions that afternoon, the British awarded Baker the prestigious Victoria Cross.

On the German side, like the British Snipe, they did not get their “next generation” pursue aircraft, the Fokker D VIII until very late in the war. This was the aircraft the Germans pitted their air fortunes on. Faster than the Snipe (approx. 10 miles faster by some accounts) and lighter at the controls, there’s little question than the new German parasol monoplane would have done more than just held its own against anything the Allies could put in the air. But time ran out for Germany. Internal strife, critical food and fuel shortages, coupled with the Allied penetration of their last major defensive line (Hindenburg) in October; forced Germany to the armistice table. In the end, not even the valiant German air force filled with one of the best aircraft ever designed, the “in erster Linie alle apparete” as the Fokker D VII was known to the French, could change the number situation.

– Raul Colon

References:

The First World War, Hew Strachan, Penguin Books 2004
The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany, Robin Neillands, Overlook Press 2001
Air Power: The men, machines, and ideas that revolutionized war, from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books 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

Caribbean Intervention: The United States Air Effort over Haiti

The United States have a long standing history of military interventions in the Caribbean since the early 1890s. A trend that continued during much of the Twenty Century with US operations in the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama and finally, Haiti. The small country of Haiti on the Island of Hispaniola has been ruled by a military dictatorship during much of its existence. It was not until 1990 and the election of President Jean-Beltran Aristide that the country enjoyed its first true contact with democracy. Unfortunately, that contact was short lived. The fragile Haitian democracy was overthrown by elements of the military within a year of Aristide’s election. What followed him was a series of weak civilian politicians and several military juntas which left the country in an even more precarious position. The last of those military dictators, General Raoul Cedras, assumed control of the country in 1993. Cedras and some of his officials negotiated a series of deals with the United Nations which would have paved the way for Aristide to comeback into power. But time and time again, Cedras neglected to meet UN conditions resulting in the Security Council Resolution No. 940. The (UN 940) authorized all member states to use force, if necessary, to restore Haiti’s legitimate president to power. With the threat of a large American military intervention, Cedras finally capitulated to UN demands and in an August accord with former US president Jimmy Carter the Haitian strongman finally permitted Aristide to return home. A date was set for the ousted President triumphant return home, the 16th of October 1994. This time, the US would not sit back and wait for Cedras to change his mind as he has so often have done before. The Americans wanted to pressure the General to live up to his word this time. Thus the threat of force was viewed by many in Washington as the only alternative to exert that pressure and restore democracy to the Haitians.

Accordingly to the UN mandate of July 1994, the United States took the lead in assembling a Multinational Force (consisting on a huge US contribution and small elements from a few Caribbean nations) to outs Cedras and restore democracy in Haiti. In early 1994, the US’ Department of Defense began preparation for an invasion of that small Caribbean nation. Two plans were carved out. The first, Operation Plan 2370 called for an overwhelming military assault from the air, sea and land against a resisting enemy. While OP 2380 envisioned a large force being deployed into the country with limited, if any, organize resistance. In the end due to the somewhat calm political situation in the country, it was a modified version of OP 2380 which was finally implemented. On September 19th, 1994 a contingency of 2,000 US ground troop, most of whom members of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, New York; were airlifted to ashore from US Navy warships assigned to Task Force 190 located just off the Haitian coastline. The US Army venerable fleet of UH-60s were use to ferry the troops inland while a force of AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters provided close support to the formation. All Army helicopters, fifty-strong, utilized the USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) as their main staging area during those critical early hours. The first time an Army air operation was launched from a Navy carrier since Vietnam.

The role of the US Air Force in Operation Uphold Democracy was less visible than on previous conflicts. The AF’s assets were utilized primarily as a supporting structure with a few notable exceptions. Elements of the AF air transport system such as units of C-5s stationed at Dover AFB in Delaware and at Griffiss AFB in New York; augmented by C-141s and C-130s from McGuire AFB in New Jersey; were use to transport troops and equipment from the US mainland to one of the Navy’s largest bases, Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Puerto Rico. To monitor activity in the skies above the theater, the AF deployed E-3 Sentries from the 552nd ACW based at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma. For air cover, twenty four F-15C Eagles of the 33rd Fighter Wing were dispatched from Eglin AFB in Florida to Roosevelt Roads where they were joined by nine KC-135 refueling tankers. Because a full fledge invasion was not require, all F-15Cs returned to their home base after only four days in the theater. The rest of the AF component consisted of three EC-130E from the 42nd ACCS, 355th Wing based at Davison/Monthan AFB, Arizona. The EC-130s were use extensively to survey the battlefield. A single RC-135 River Joint aircraft was deployed to monitor electronic signals emanating from the theater. For close air support, the AF sent two pair of AC-130H Specter gunships to the area.

The workhorse of the AF’s force was its KCs tankers. KC-135s flew 297 sorties, totaling 1,129 flying hours, during the initial days of the operation. This high sortie number had not been seen in the Caribbean since the Granada operation almost ten years before. The sheer number of US troops, the initial 2,000 deployment was augmented by 15,000 more ground troops within a week, assured the stability of the country as its moved back to democracy. On March 31st, 1995, the powerful US-lead MNF transferred its responsibilities for security to a broader assemble UN Peacekeeping Force which as of today, still guarantees the security and stability of Haiti as it begins to stabilize itself.

– Raul Colon

References:
How to Make War: Fourth Edition, James F. Dunnigan, HarperCollins Publishers 2003
The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare, Editor Chris Bishop, Amber Books 2001

South Korean’s Stealth Fighter Takes Shape

As the year 2008 comes to a close, the South Korean government will be faced with a major decision. This decision could alter the balance of power in the Korean peninsula for the next three decades. At the heart of the “cross road” is to continued the developmental stage of the country’s first independent and indigenous produced stealth fighter. In late 2000, President Kim Dea-Jung’s government concluded that after years of an intense lobbying campaign in the United States Congress for the opportunity to acquire first generation F-22 Raptor stealth fighters from the United States, an effort that proved unsuccessful; South Korean would need to develop its own program if they were to have an operational stealth aircraft by the middle of the century. On may 2001 he proceeded to order a Feasibility Study regarding the ability of the country to produce its own stealth platform. The Korean Aerospace Industry (KF) immediately began research into the platform’s characteristics and profile. This study eventually concluded that such aircraft could in fact be designed and developed in-country. The first phase of the program, the Definition Study began in the spring of 2006 and concluded in December 2006. The second part, the Feasibility Study commenced in January 2007. The task was a join effort between KF, the Korean Development Institute, the Teal Group of aerospace consultants and a government-ran think tank. The study phase was finished in February of this year. During the feasibility phase, KF and its partners visited all the major US aircraft manufactures as well as its European counterparts. The visits were intended to gather support for a transoceanic venture involving one or more of the world’s biggest aircraft design and development companies. As of today, only SAAB has demonstrated profound interest in KF effort.

The KFX concept, as outlined by the Definition Study, would be a twin engine fighter with an all internal weapons carriage mechanism similar to the one on board the F-22. The internal carriage limited the aircraft’s cross radar signature. The KFX would have a performance envelop in the vicinity of the Boeing’s F-15K and the Lockheed Martin F-16C-D Block 52 air superiority fighters. The plane’s profile would also mimic that of the two mentioned US fighters.

As a technology “bridge” between South Korea’s Air Force current air inventory of F-15K and F-16C-D Block 52 and the new KFX, KF in partnership with Lockheed Martin, developed the FA-50 Light Attack aircraft. The FA-50 is a de facto upgraded version of the KF-Lockheed Martin join ventured TA-50 advance training airplane. The TA-50 is a light weigh and extremely maneuverable aircraft weight in at just above 6.5 metric tons (without its full weapons and fuel complement). The T-50 version took to the air for the first time on August 20th 2002 and became operational in February 2005. Over one hundred units of the T-50 had been delivered to the South Korean AF.

But South Korean “bridge” is getting closer to cross. The Korean government estimated that the $ 12 billion program should produce a workable air vehicle by 2017 with the first units entering frontal service four years later. So, if the decision to move forward is made, South Korea could very well field the forth stealth tactical squadron (Russia, Great Britain and France are working on their own stealth platforms) in the world. A truly remarkable achievement by any standards.

– Raul Colon

The Luftflotten Before D-Day 1944

Before the ground crumbled all around it, before the Allies invaded the Normandy coast, before the Soviet Red Army broke the back of the once vaunted German Wehrmacht, even before the German skies were completely filled with Allied bombers seemingly running without any hassle from German fighters, the once powerful Luftwaffe looked poised to stop the Allied push into Fortress Europe. In fact, real optimism ran through the Luftwaffe’s officer corps as new materials, men and fighting machines began to join the ranks. By the end of May 1944, the much maligned Luftwaffe possessed an impressive amount of fire power. Its ranks now was compromised of 2.8 million men and women. Its overall air assets were now at 4500 combat ready aircraft with new and more powerful platforms, such as the Messerschmitt Me 163 and Me 262 jet fighters as well as the Arado Ar 234 jet bomber; commencing to enter front line service. These aircraft types were augmented by a new force of redesigned Heinkel He 177 heavy bombers. The Luftwaffe was also in the final stages of having the Fi 103 or V-1 flying pulse bomb and the much powerful A-4 (V-2) rocket, ready for operational debut.

This infusion of materials was mainly the work of the Ministry of War Production under the tutelage of one Albert Speer. Since late 1942, German aircraft production had been taken a pounding from the constant bombing done to its infrastructure by the British Bomber Command at night and the United States Army’s Eight Air Force during daylight. Nevertheless, Speer pushed ahead. He streamlined production by removing many unproductive aircraft models, dispersing production of airframes, air systems and more importantly, engine parts; to twenty seven main production centers dispersed in the Fatherland. He also oversaw the construction of a few major underground facilities completely dedicated to the final assembly of aircraft. Most important to the Luftwaffe’s war effort was the development of aviation fuel, which had at times curtail air operations, In 1944, aviation fuel production reached an all time high in March with the production of just under 200000 tons. This figure raised the Luftwaffe’s strategic reserves to an all time high of 580000 available tons. The direct result of all of those measures was that the total output of German air industry increased by fifty percent over the past December. On the downside, by April 1944, the Luftwaffe was looked by an uneasy public with contempt at best. Its main mission role, the defense of the Fatherland, had been a colossal failure by any standard. Thus the public’s faith and respect on what was once their more proud armed service, was lost. But this paled in comparison to the Force’s main problem: the ability to maintain an experience pilot program. The attrition of the German pilot element lead to the rush of untested, and sometimes, unqualified young recruits to the front lines. This “revolving door” policy cut deep into the overall effectiveness of the German Air Force. Because of this, the Luftwaffe’s tactical reserve formations were decimated and in some instances, they were none existent. Nevertheless, by April 1944, the Luftwaffe that the Allies were facing was a more advance and better tactical and strategic force that the one they faced from early 1942 onwards.

The strength of the Luftwaffe laid on its Luftflotten or air fleets. The Luftflotten was the German AF main fighting force. Every Luftflotten formation is compromised by elements of all type of aircraft, pilots, support crew compliment and an Anti-Aircraft Batteries detachments. These formations were grouped by geographical areas. The most powerful Luftflotten force was the Luftflotte Reich. The Luftflotte Reich was based in air bases across Greater Germany area which compromised all of Germany itself, Austrian and the western sections of Czechoslovakia. This was the force that was assigned the bulk of the air defense of the Fatherland at all times. Because of this, this was the most equipped and trained formation the Luftwaffe possessed. Its commander, generaloberst Hans-Jurgen Stumpff, was the commanding officer of Luftflotte Number 5, based on Denmark and Norway, during the Battle of Britain. The Number 5 was basically a tactical reserve force, seeing limited combat action, mostly later in the conflict. Now the confident Stumpff commanded the Luftwaffe’s last line of defense against the combine might of Bomber Command and the 8th Air Force.

His force was compromised of just 555 operational day fighters, 421 night interceptors, 302 bombers and an array of various other type of aircraft for a grand total of 1,348 serviceable airframes. A woeful amount to defense such a vast space against such a powerful opponent. Beside the sheer numbers laid the fact that of 555 day fighters, available, the vast majority were outclassed Bf 109Gs, Fw 190s and Me 410s which were not competition for the new P-47s and P-51s. Luftflotte Reich was able to “post” 302 bombers on its operational lists on 21 Gruppen or squadrons. Five of those Gruppens were not operational between February and May because of their transitions to the new He 177 bomber platform. The pathfinder force consisted on one Gruppen, I/KG66, assigned to support all bomber activity. They were armed with aging Junkers Ju 188s reconnaissance planes. This unit was one of the most hardest hit Gruppens on the Luftwaffe’s list. It had suffered tremendous losses in the Battle of Britain, even to the point of being deemed a “paper force” without any real aircraft, so at the time of D-Day, they were in a re-formation mode. Gruppen III/KG 3 was converting a version of the venerable He 111 to carry the new Fi 103 pulse flying bombs. Others bombers formations were having similar transition issues. By April, the Luftflotte Reich only ground attack unit, the III.-SG 3, was being replenish with improved Fw 190s. This unit would be send to the Eastern Front where it was decimated within just two months. There were two dedicated units attached to the Luftflotte Reich. The first, the Versuchsverband Ob.d.L. was designated to conduct experiments and testing on captured Allied aircraft and systems. The other was the I.KG 200 which operated capture Allied transport planes such as the Douglas DC-3, Boeing’s B-17 and Liore et Oliver 246 seaplanes. All aircraft flown by I.KG 200 were utilized to transport German infiltration units inside Allied lines. Despite what many historians had stated, there’s no official records indicating that any of these aircraft wore any other insignia beside the Nazi logo.

The second major Luftwaffe formation was Luftflotte 3rd or the Western Air Force as its was later known. As its name suggest, Luftflotte 3rd was assigned to exclusively to the Western Front where it awaited the impending massive Allied air assault in preparations to the expected cross Channel invasion of Fortress Europe. The force was commanded by Generalfieldmarshall Hugo Sperrle who had orchestrated the Luftwaffe’s tactical attacks on French formations during the successful 1940 Blitz. At the heart of the Western AF was Fliegerkorps X, an specialized anti-shipping formation which would be crucial if the Germans were to curtail the allied invasion. The force had 539 operational aircraft at its disposal. Seventy five percent of the force consisted of Fw 200s, He 177s and Dornier Do 217s. The Do 217s were modified to carry the new Henschel 293 and Fritz X radio-guided attack missiles. The other aircraft of the X were Junkers Ju 188s armed with torpedoes. The other main force in the Western AF was Fliegerkorps IX with its complement of 137 aircraft including Ju 188s, 88s and Do 217s. The Luftflotte 3rd was based on several airfields in Belgium, Holland, western Germany and eastern France; all within range of the Atlantic Wall. As was the case with Luftflotte Reich, the 3rd were to be completely overwhelming by its assigned task. Its air defense assets were allocated on only six gruppens with an overall total of serviceable airplanes of just 115 Bf 109s and Fw 190s. Augmenting the 3rd were two Gruppens of Ju 88 long range fighters utilized for U-boat screening.

By the beginning of April, the Luftwaffe had made plans to transfer fighter Gruppens from Luftflotte Reich to northern France in an effort to assist the overwhelmed Western AF. This transfer of assets would had depleted the Reich force and had left Germany basically at the mercy of the bombers. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe counted that during the first weeks of the invasion, the majority of the allies aircraft would be employed supporting the invading troops. It is here were the lack of Luftwaffe’s resources played a pivotal role. The German Air Force knew they would not be able to stop the landings, only, if they were lucky, delayed it until the Wehrmacht’s reserve units could be rushed to the front. To do this, the Luftflotte 3rd needed more close air support fighter/bombers, but thanks to the massive rate of attrition on the Eastern Front, the 3rd only possessed two operational Gruppens with just 48 Fw 190s among them. A woeful number to steam a powerful invasion.

As sad as the state of the Luftflotte forces on the West was, their counterparts on the Eastern Front were on the verge of total collapse. In May 1944, the Luftwaffe deployed four Luftflotte forces, the 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th on a vast 1500 mile front extending from the Arctic Ocean on the north to the Black Sea on the south. The 5th had its bases located on Norway and Finland and was assigned the northern part of the front. The 1st was stationed along a moving set of bases in the Baltic coast and the ever shrinking Leningrad sector. Luftflotte 6th operated on the center of the front while the 4th covered the south portion of it. The 5th, under the command of general Josef Kammhuber had only 193 operational aircraft. It only possessed two day fighter Gruppens of Bf 109s. One Gruppen of Ju 88s and Fw 190 for close ground support plus a Gruppen of Ju 87s for night operations. There were also a Gruppen of Ju 52 floatplanes and three small Staffeln (sub-groups of 10 to 15 aircraft) of Ju 188s and 88s long distance reconnaissance platforms. The 1st was in better shape. Its commanding officer, general Kurt Pfugbeil, commanded a force of two fully equipped day fighter Gruppens, two Staffeln of night fighter/bombers and another one of He 111 bombers. This force was augmented by three additional night attack and two close air support Gruppens.

The 6th was lead by generaloberst von Greim. Although the 6th covered the most space among the Eastern Luftflotte, it only had two operational Gruppens plus two Staffeln of day fighters at its disposal. What the force lacked in fighters it made it up with its bombers. Luftflotte 6th had eleven Gruppens of He 111 bombers, three Fw 190s and Ju 87s Gruppens for ground attack missions and a single night fighter Gruppen of Ju 87s. It also possessed three Staffeln of long range reconnaissance planes plus two additional Staffeln for short-to-medium range reconnaissance operations. A sole Gruppen of Ju 52s transport planes was also at Greim’s disposal.

The last of the Eastern Front forces was the southern air fleet, Luftflotte 4. The 4th was under the command of generaloberst Desloch. Since his force sat on the area of front where the Germans expected the main axis of the Soviet offensive to come in, Desloch’s group was well equipped with ten Gruppens of ground attack planes, seven of day fighters and two more of night fighters. These formations were augmented by four Staffeln of long range reconnaissance airplanes. There were also two and a half Gruppens of transport aircraft equipped with Ju 52s and Italian Savoia Marchetti SM.82s which were manned by Italian pilots loyal to Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

On the extreme southern part of the 1500-mile front rested the last Luftflotte formation, the 2nd. Based in Italy, the 2nd was assigned the central and western Mediterranean area of air operations. Lead by generalfeldmarschall Wolfram von Richthofen, the 2nd was basically a “paper” force. In “paper” it can field four day fighter, three bomber and two close air support Gruppens. Augmented by two long range and one short range reconnaissance Staffeln. A Gruppen of transport aircraft was also “available”. In paper this force looked impressive, specially for their area of operations, by this time, the central and western parts of the Mediterranean Sea were basically off-limits to German air formations. But this was on paper alone. The reality was That because of the massive Allied air superiority on the Mediterranean and the absent of any major German operations in the area, the air assets of many of those Gruppens were re-allocated to other Luftflotte forces.

Beside the great air fleets, the Luftwaffe operated several other smaller air formations. Chief among them was Luftwaffenkommando Sudost, a force compromised of two day and one night fighter Gruppens, a Staffeln of Ju 88s plus three Staffeln of reconnaissance aircraft. There was also a depleted Staffeln of Ju 87s for close air support. But its main air asset was one Gruppen of Me 323s transport airplanes plus two Staffeln of Ju 52s seaplanes. The transport aspect of the force was at the heart of its mission profile which was the resupplying of German Army garrisons on the Greek Islands.

Overall, before the Allied invasion of Hitler’s Europe, the state of the various Luftwaffe formations was impressive. By May 1944, he Luftwaffe presented a massive air armada. A force that, in any other occasion, take out any one. But constant fighting on four continuing fronts had and would again take the bite out of this re-constituted force.

– Raul Colon

References:
German Aircraft of the Second World War, EJ Creek and JR Smith, Putnam Books 1972
Six Months to Oblivion, Allan Ian, Shepperton 1975
Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group 2004
The German Navy, Edward Von der Porten, Thomas Crowell Company 1969
The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany, Robin Neillands, The Overlook Press 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