Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Aviation in World War 1

World War I was the first war in which aircraft were deployed on a large scale. Tethered observation balloons had already been employed in several wars, and would be used extensively for artillery spotting. Germany employed Zeppelins for reconnaissance over the North Sea and strategic bombing raids over England.
Ace fighter pilots were portrayed as modern knights, and many became popular heroes. While the impact of aircraft on the course of war was limited, many of the lessons learned would be applied in future wars. You can check out my post on famous pilots to learn more about these aces.

The dawn of air combat
Air-to-air combat soon progressed to throwing bricks, grenades, and other objects, even rope, which they hoped would tangle the enemy aircraft's propeller. The first aircraft brought down by another was an Austrian reconnaissance rammed on 8 September 1914 by Russian pilot Pyotr Nesterov in Galicia in the Eastern Front (both planes crashed as the result of the attack killing all occupants). Eventually pilots began firing handheld firearms at enemy aircraft. On October 5, 1914, French pilot Louis Quenault opened fire on a German aircraft with a machine gun. The era of air combat properly began as more and more aircraft were fitted with machine guns.
The Fokker Scourge

(Above): The actual aircraft used by Leutnant Kurt Wintgens in his pioneering aerial engagement, his Fokker M.5K/MG with Id Flieg military serial number "E.5/15", as it appeared at the time of the engagement on 1 July 1915. (Below): Max Immelmann of Feldflieger Abteilung 62 in the cockpit of his Fokker E.I. s/nE.13/15.

The first purpose-designed fighter aircraft included the British Vickers F.B.5 – machine gun armament was also fitted to several French types, such as the Morane-Saulnier L and N. Initially the German Air Service lagged behind the Allies in this respect, but this was soon to change dramatically.
In July 1915 the Fokker E.I became operational – this was the first type of aircraft to enter service with a "synchronisation gear" which enabled a machine gun to fire the propeller without striking its blades. This constituted an important advantage over other contemporary fighter aircraft. This aircraft and its immediate successors – also commonly known as the Eindecker (German for "Monoplane") – for the first time supplied an effective equivalent to Allied fighters.
The very first successful engagement involving a synchronized-gun-armed aircraft occurred on July 1, 1915, just to the east of Lunéville, France when Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, one of the pilots selected by Fokker to demonstrate the small series of five Eindecker prototype aircraft, forced down a French Morane-Saulnier Type L "Parasol" Allied lines with his Fokker M.5K/MG Eindecker prototype.

By late 1915 the Germans had achieved air superiority, making Allied access to vital intelligence derived from continual aerial reconnaissance more dangerous to acquire. In particular the essential defencelessness of Allied reconnaissance types was exposed. The first German "ace" pilots – notably Max Immelmann – had begun their careers.
The number of actual Allied casualties involved was for various reasons very small compared with the intensive air fighting of 1917–18. The deployment of the Eindeckers was less than overwhelming – the new type was issued in ones and twos to existing reconnaissance squadrons – and it was to be nearly a year before the Germans were to follow the British in establishing specialist fighter squadrons. The Eindecker was also, in spite of its advanced armament, by no means an outstanding aircraft, being closely based on a pre-war French racer.
Fortunately for the Allies, two new British fighters were already in production that were a match for the Fokker—the F.E.2b and the D.H.2. These were both "pushers" and could fire forwards without gun synchronisation. The F.E.2b reached the front in September 1915, and the D.H.2 in the following February. On the French front, the tiny Nieuport 11, a tractor biplane with a forward firing gun mounted outside the arc of the propeller (on the top wing) also proved more than a match for the German fighter when it entered service in January 1916. With these new types the Allies re-established air superiority in time for the Battle of the Somme, and the "Fokker Scourge" was over.
Bloody April
The first half of 1917 was a successful period for the jagdstaffeln and the much larger RFC suffered significantly higher casualties than their opponents. New Allied fighters such as the Sopwith Pup, Sopwith Triplane, and SPAD S.VII were coming into service. On the other hand, the jagdstaffeln were equipped with the new Albatros D.III, which was, in spite of some structural difficulties, "the best fighting scout on the Western Front" at the time.
This culminated in the rout of April 1917, known as "Bloody April". The RFC suffered particularly severe losses. During the last half of 1917, the British Sopwith Camel and S.E.5a and the French SPAD S.XIII became available in numbers. The ordinary two-seater squadrons in the RFC received the R.E.8 or the F.K.8, not outstanding warplanes, but far less vulnerable than the BE.2e they replaced. The F.E.2d at last received a worthy replacement in the Bristol F.2b. On the other hand the latest Albatros, the D.V proved to be a disappointment, as was the Pfalz D.III. By the end of the year, the air superiority pendulum had swung once more in the Allies' favour.

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