The centenary of air power

In 2016 there will be many anniversaries to be marked in what is the centenary of one of the busiest and most tragic years of the First World War. One consistent theme through the year is the fact that it marks 100 years since military aviation came of age and was organised along clear lines of aircraft design, production and front-line tactical use.

When Europe descended into war in the summer of 1914, the sole purpose of aircraft was to act as a forward scout, observing the enemy’s movements and reporting back to their masters, whether on land or sea. From this limited brief, individual enterprise was then primarily responsible for increasing that scope of services to the bombing of selected targets and the interception and destruction of enemy aircraft.

Until 1916, the primary aircraft were observation machines designed for the purpose of reconnaissance, with a few faster ‘scout’ type aircraft being fitted with machine guns in an effort to shoot the enemy’s machines down. But then in 1916 a diverse array of specialised aircraft types was conceived, designed and built at an utterly phenomenal pace, identifying and fulfilling the same roles that air forces have performed from that day to this.

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The Nieuport 17 was one of the first of a new breed of aircraft to emerge in 1916

Between New Year and the summer of 1916, ‘scout’ aircraft evolved into the thoroughbred fighter and this was deployed in dedicated squadrons whose existence was purely to attack enemy aircraft. Despite the rise of the fighter, the standard two-seat military aircraft design remained the most numerous of all the types in service, but was sub-divided into pure reconnaissance machinery, light bombers and the first generation of multi-role strike aircraft.

Fighters made for good propaganda – with the scores of individual units and, more importantly, their leading pilots – becoming an obsession on both sides of the lines. Germany had already enshrined its first ‘aces’ Max Immelman and Oswald Bölcke as heroes of the age, and their achievements inspired other young men to follow them.

Soon Britain would be cheering Albert Ball to the echo and France would fall under the spell of Georges Guynemer, but there was of course the thorny problem of how to bring news of the death of these supposed supermen. Georges Boillot, the lion of Peugeot’s pre-war Grand Prix team and one of the early French aces would be killed in May, his compatriot Jean Navarre would be invalided out of the front line a month later. Max Immelman would die in June, followed by Bölcke in October.

Captain-Georges-Guynemer

Georges Guynemer was one of the ‘superstar’ pilots to emerge in 1916

While the headlines and newsreels were dominated by the dashing single-seater pilots, still greater significance was the appearance of the first strategic bombers – heavyweights designed to carry the maximum destructive payload for the furthest distance. From the start of the year when bombs were being dropped by hand onto enemy troop emplacements and aircraft sheds, both sides on the Western Front had the fundamental capability to reach the capital cities of their respective enemies and reduce areas of them to rubble.

Designing individual aircraft types and then producing them in volume was one half of the equation. So too was the production line of young men to fly and fight in these machines, resulting in a giant leap forward in aircrew training in order to fulfil the new roles and to plug the gaps in front-line squadrons that would inevitably occur as the air war grew more effective at killing these magnificent men in their flying machines.

The first records of how many men were to be required to fly these aircraft began in July 1916, and over the course of the next six months it was shown that the inclusive total of killed and missing was 419 men, which represented one casualty per 206 hours flown by the RFC. The number of men in the air would increase, as would the number and frequency of losses, in line with the growth of the combatants’ air services.

A thumbnail sketch of what happened in each month of 1916 now follows. In the course of the next 11 months or so, the S&G will be returning to some of the aircraft, airmen and stories of the time to commemorate this most remarkable year in the history of mankind.

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The perspective of war on the land and in the air changed forever in 1916

January

  • Requirement for large scale night flying instruction recognised by British Air Ministry to counter the threat of Zeppelin raids on London and other UK targets
  • Nieuport 17 fighter prototype flies
  • Junkers J.I all-metal monoplane fighter prototype flies
L31-and-Peter-Strasser-1916.

In Britain, early 1916 was spent worrying about Zeppelin raids on the home front

February (Battle of Verdun begins)

  • Germany commissions squadrons consisting purely of single-seat scouts tasked with shooting down enemy aircraft – the first fighter squadrons
  • Airco DH.2 fighter enters service with the Royal Flying Corps – Britain’s first dedicated interceptor
  • Sopwith 1½ Strutter light bomber reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Pup fighter prototype flies

March

  • Royal Flying Corps establishes the first Home Defence squadrons around London
  • Nieuport 17 fighter reaches Armée de l’Air squadrons in France
  • Fokker D.II fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France

April

  • Royal Flying Corps aircraft fly supplies to the besieged city of Kut in eastern Iraq – the first airlift in military history
  • Spad S.VII fighter prototype flies
  • Gotha G.II heavy bomber prototype flies
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Gotha’s new series of heavy bombers would bring terror from afar

May (Battle of Jutland)

  • Sopwith Pup fighter reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Triplane fighter prototype flies

June (Battle of Mecca)

  • Royal Flying Corps conducts intensive reconnaissance of the Somme valley in France and targets German observation balloons and aircraft which might be able to capture information about preparations for the coming assault
  • Royal Aircraft Factory RE8 reconnaissance prototype flies

July (Battle of the Somme begins)

  • Royal Flying Corps provides 105 aircraft in the front line supporting the July 1 assault with artillery observation, reconnaissance and ground attack missions
  • Royal Flying Corps begins detailed measurement of the casualties suffered to measure training requirements and tactics
  • Fokker D.I fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France
  • Albatros D.II fighter approved for service use and begins equipping fighter squadrons
  • Fokker D.III fighter prototype flies
  • Felixtowe F2 flying boat prototype flies
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The Albatros D.II placed attacking speed over dogfighting manoeuvrability

August (Battle of Doberdò)

  • Royal Aircraft Factory BE12 reconnaissance aircraft reaches Royal Flying Corps squadrons in France
  • Spad S.VII fighter reaches Armée de l’Air squadrons in France
  • Gotha G.II heavy bomber reaches German Air Service squadrons in the Balkans
  • Airco DH.4 bomber prototype flies

September

  • Manfred von Richthofen, the future ‘Red Baron’, scores his first victory in air combat
  • Gotha G.III heavy bomber reaches German Air Service squadrons in the Balkans
  • Fokker D.III fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France
Gdh2

Manfred von Richthofen (right) inspects a captured Airco DH.2

October

  • Bristol F.2B multi-role fighter prototype flies

November (Battle of the Somme ends)

  • German Air Service forms ‘England Squadron’ of Gotha heavy bombers for the purpose of attacking London with large-scale bombing raids
  • Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 fighter prototype flies
  • Albatros D.I fighter enters service with German Air Service squadrons in France
  • Royal Aircraft Factory RE8 reconnaissance aircraft enters service with Royal Flying Corps squadrons in France

December (Battle of Verdun ends)

  • Sopwith Triplane fighter reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Handley Page 0/100 heavy bomber enters service with Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Camel fighter prototype flies
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The first of the mighty S.E.5 fighters

Many anniversaries are to be planned, commemorations made and aircraft flown – including a Scottish-built Sopwith 1½ Strutter recreation and the return of the Sopwith Triplane to flying duties for the Shuttleworth Collection after its 2014 landing accident. Much to see and do, particularly at Old Warden in the UK and, doubtless, Peter Jackson’s brilliant facilities in New Zealand. And of course at all the commemorations planned this year. We will do our best to keep you up-to-date on what’s happening.

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2 thoughts on “The centenary of air power

  1. Pingback: Celluloid dogfights: a brief history | The Scarf & Goggles Social Club

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