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Rapid progress in aircraft technology after 1914 begat a whole new form of warfare, which proved to be hugely eff ective at infl uencing the confl ict on the ground


orld War 1 ushered in an entirely new arena for warfare: the air. Planes were still relatively new in

1914 – the Wright brothers had only made the world’s fi rst-ever controlled fl ight in America on 17 December 1903, just over a decade before. Consequently, in 1914, aircraft technology could still largely be considered a ‘work in progress’. Summing up the military’s prevailing attitude, French leader General Foch said, “Aviation is a good sport, but for the army it is useless”. In 1914 planes were used mainly for reconnaissance, but as the war developed, fl ight in a variety of forms – from fi ghters, to bombers, to Zeppelins – emerged as a major new weapon of war. And with this shift came the world’s fi rst sky-borne action hero – Germany’s Manfred von Richthofen, aka ‘The Red Baron’ – and Britain’s Royal Air Force, a service separate to the army and navy, formed in 1918. British and German aircraft engineers worked overtime during the war – each team constantly developing new ideas to add to their fl eet of fi ghters and bombers. Breakthroughs on each side led to copycat designs from the other. In the skies, British and German pilots sought to outwit each other, during air-to-air dogfi ghts and with planned bombing raids on ground targets.


At the start of the war, pilots took to the skies armed with pistols, grenades and a mix of makeshift weapons. They even tried throwing bricks at enemy planes while in mid-air. But by October 1914 both sides were experimenting with free-swinging onboard machine guns, with crew members standing up to fi re off rounds at enemy fi ghters. The French were the fi rst to shoot down a German fi ghter on 5 October 1915.

34 ❮ WW1 Centenary Special

The life expectency of an RAF pilot was just three weeks

“At the start of the war, pilots took to the skies armed with pistols, grenades and a mix of makeshift weapons”

New designs were introduced, with the machine gun in a fi xed position at the front of the plane, allowing the pilot to operate the gun. These one-man planes were smaller and lighter but there was just one problem: the propeller. Engineers on both sides struggled to synchronize the machine gun’s fi re with the movement of the propeller blades. The fi rst to master this was the German company Fokker. For the fi rst half of 1916 the Germans controlled the air. At Verdun, Germany set out to bleed the French army and airforce dry. Part of this plan involved shooting down French reconnaissance planes, effectively blinding the army on the ground. By the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, German air supremacy was coming to an end. The Allies produced more planes for the Western Front and their pilots began to fl y in organised fi ghter units, which provided much needed defensive cover against German fi re. Yet the average life expectancy of a British fi ghter pilot on the

Western Front was put at a mere 93 fl ying hours, which was equal to three weeks of active service. More than 50,000 airmen from both sides died during the war.


Strategic bombing became a major tactic during the war – attacking factories, power stations and dockyards to reduce the enemy’s ability to arm itself, and taking out fortresses and gun positions before launching ground assaults. Unlike fi ghter planes, which saw new designs each year, bombers stayed the same from 1914 to 1918. Britain’s most famous bomber was the Handley-Page O/400, which could carry one ton of bombs and fl y at nearly 100mph for up to eight hours, making raids across northern France possible from air bases in South-East England. The bombers had to be easy to fl y, because new pilots were given very little training. Graduates from the Royal Flying Corps fl ight school were sent on combat


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