The Air War

At the start of World War I, often known as the Great War, airplanes were little more than ten years old. The Blériot XI type airplane, only five years old, had first gone to war in 1911 with Italian forces in North Africa. At the outbreak of World War I, the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) brought twenty-three Blériot XI’s to France with its expeditionary force. These planes served as reconnaissance aircraft with six RFC squadrons. The French Air Service also furnished Blériots to eight of their escadrilles, or air squadrons, and Italy went into action with its own previously acquired Blériot XI’s in six squadrons.

World War I, the first truly global conflict, was also the first war in which rapidly developing aviation technology allowed for the widespread use of fighter planes and bombers in support of ground troops.

At the start of World War I, often known as the Great War, airplanes were little more than ten years old. The Blériot XI type airplane, only five years old, had first gone to war in 1911 with Italian forces in North Africa. At the outbreak of World War I, the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) brought twenty-three Blériot XI’s to France with its expeditionary force. These planes served as reconnaissance aircraft with six RFC squadrons. The French Air Service also furnished Blériots to eight of their escadrilles, or air squadrons, and Italy went into action with its own previously acquired Blériot XI’s in six squadrons.

The first airplanes were looked upon not as weapons of destruction but rather as scouts. Even at the end of the war, fighters such as the Sopwith Snipe and the Fokker D-VIII were still classified as scouts. At the start of the war, planes were unarmed, and pilots from opposing sides would wave as they flew by each other, in a sort of “camaraderie of the sky.” This arrangement did not last.

Armed Aircraft

On the night of June 17, 1915, in a Morane Saulnier L, Lieutenant R. A. J. Warneford of the Royal Naval Air Force (RNAF) was flying toward Evere, Belgium, to bomb zeppelin bases. Warneford spotted the LZ-37, a German zeppelin, 521 feet long, kept aloft by 935,000 cubic feet of dangerously flammable hydrogen gas and armed with four machine guns.

Warneford’s single-seater carried only a few bombs and a carbine. The zeppelin crew fired at Warneford as it dumped ballast and rapidly rose higher into the sky. On through the night and early into the morning, Warneford pursued the zeppelin, which eventually began to lose altitude. Warneford pushed his Morane to higher altitudes until he was above the zeppelin, at which point Warneford released his bombs. The bombs made contact with the zeppelin, resulting in a tremendous explosion. The dirigible, engulfed in flames, plummeted to the earth. Lieutenant Warneford was the first Allied flier to bring down a zeppelin.

Air fighting began as the exchange of shots from small arms between enemy airmen meeting one another in the course of reconnoitering. Fighter aircraft armed with machine guns, however, made their first appearance in 1915. Tactical bombing and the bombing of enemy air bases were also gradually introduced at this time. Contact patrolling, with aircraft giving immediate support to infantry, was developed in 1916.

Fighter Group Organization

On the German side of the western front, aviation units in the field were at first divided into thirty-four flying sections, or flights, known as Feldfliegerabteilungen. Each flight had six aircraft for reconnaissance, photographic duties, and artillery target-spotting. Two additional aircraft were later added for escort work. When, in 1915, the need for more specialized duties was clear, units solely for reconnaissance and fighting were formed, known as Kampf und Feldfliegerabteilungen.

The British established the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers in 1911. In April, 1912, the RFC was established and the Military Wing of the RFC absorbed the Air Battalion. The Military Wing initially had seven squadrons of planes with twelve aircraft to a squadron, an aircraft for each squadron commander, and one airship and manned kite balloon squadron. The RFC was still attached, however, to the army. The Royal Air Force (RAF), the world’s first separate air military service, was brought into active existence by a series of measures taken between October, 1917, and June, 1918.

The French Air Service had a structure similar to those of the British and the Germans. The French had a unit of American volunteers that was created in April, 1916, and renamed the Lafayette Escadrille in December, 1916. The Lafayette Escadrille saw much frontline action and suffered heavy casualties. In January, 1918, the Lafayette Escadrille was reorganized in the U.S. Army as the 103d Pursuit Squadron.

Development of Fighter Planes

After a few months into the war, pilots were unanimous in their desire for fixed machine guns. Pusher aircraft presented no problem in this matter, because their propellers were placed behind the cockpit compartment. Thus, a machine gun could be mounted in front of the pilot with a clear line of fire. In contrast, a tractor aircraft, with the propeller at the front of the plane’s fuselage, had no clear line of fire ahead of the pilot. A machine gun mounted along the line of the fuselage would have shot off the propeller blades.

During the month before the outbreak of the war, French engineer Raymond Saulnier had been working on an interrupter gear that would allow a machine gun to be fired through the propeller arc. He had grown impatient with hang-fire failures, so he attached steel deflection plates on the propeller where the bullets passed through the arc. The famous sporting pilot and friend of Saulnier, Lieutenant Roland Garros, asked Saulnier to attach steel deflector plates to his propeller blades and to mount a fixed machine gun in front of the cockpit. Garros relied upon the steel plates to ward off the bullets that hit the airscrew. Shortly thereafter, Garros shot down five German planes and was awarded the French Legion of Honor.

The problem of perfecting a machine gun that would synchronize its firing with the rotation of the propellers was the assignment given to the Dutch engineer Anthony Fokker. In 1915, Fokker considerably improved upon Garros’s innovation. Fokker Eindecker E-I’s armed with synchronized Spandau machine guns roamed the skies virtually unopposed. German aces such as Lieutenant Max Immelman and Captain Oswald Boelcke led a reign of terror in the skies, known as the “Fokker Scourge.” However, the Allies soon came up with a synchronized gun designed by Georges Constantinesco.

Early Losses

British losses in the air in 1915 were serious. The British workhorse aircraft was the BE.2 of pre-1914 Geoffrey De Havilland design. The BE.2, under mass production in a way not accorded to any other British machine, was used on all fronts for all types of work. By 1915, improvements to the BE.2’s original design had been made, but the Fokker Eindecker E-I, with its interrupter-geared, forward-firing machine gun, still outmatched the BE.2. Any effective British response to the Fokker scourge was often hampered by the difference in the tactics of the British and the Germans. British tactics were to cover as much of the war theater as possible while the Germans would concentrate their strength at key areas where it was felt that an effort was needed. The latter approach proved the more effective.

From the winter of 1914–1915, the practice of British squadrons in France was to have one or two single-seat scouts with some form of armament that enabled them to act as fighters, not merely as faster reconnaissance aircraft. The successful RFC single-seat fighter was the Airco DH.2 pusher biplane. RFC Squadron Twenty-four, equipped with these planes, went to France in February, 1916, and momentarily overcame the Fokker monoplane and the German two-seaters in the struggle for aerial supremacy.

The Fighter Planes

Of the German fighter planes, the D-types were single-seat, single-engine biplanes, which usually had two fixed Maxim (Spandau) machine guns. The Dr-types were single-seat, single-engine, armed triplanes, such as that used by the “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen. The Dr’s had the same armament as the D-types. The E-types were single-seat, occasionally two-seat, single-engine, armed monoplanes. The Fokker E-IV was equipped with three synchronized machine guns.

The Airco D.H.2 finally put an end to the Fokker scourge in 1916, but was soon outclassed by faster and more agile German fighters. With the Albatros D.II, the Germans reclaimed the skies in early 1916. The Fokker Dr.I, the triplane made famous by the Red Baron, was not as fast as many other aircraft of the time, but it could outmaneuver them. The Fokker DVII was the best fighter aircraft that Germany had. The D-VII could “hang on its prop,” or, point straight up, and shoot the underside of an enemy aircraft.

Next to the Sopwith Camel, the S.E. 5 was one of Britain’s most successful fighters during World War I. The S.E. 5 was designed by Royal Aircraft and used the 150-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine. It was introduced in 1916 and modified first with a 200-horsepower engine, then later with a Wolselev W.4a Viper engine. The latter engine proved very successful. Large numbers of this aircraft did not reach the front until early 1918. British fighter pilots, such as J. B. McCudden, William A. Bishop, and Edward Mannock, had a lot of success flying this plane. The S.E. 5 was one of the fastest fighters of the war and was also used for sneaking up under the enemy and shooting into its belly.

Of the French planes, the Spad S. VIII was a very good climber and was favored by many pilots, such as Captain Eddie Rickenbacker of the United States. The main problem with the plane was that when the engine power or speed was reduced, the plane would drop like a dead weight.


Strategic bombing was initiated very early in the war. British aircraft from Dunkirk bombed Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Friedrichshafen in the autumn of 1914. Their main objective was to destroy the sheds of the German dirigible airships or zeppelins. Raids by German planes or seaplanes on English towns in December, 1914, heralded a great zeppelin offensive sustained with increasing intensity from January, 1915, to September, 1916. London was first bombed in the night of May 31 to June 1, 1915. In October, 1916, the British, in turn, began a more systematic offensive from eastern France against industrial targets in southwestern Germany.

While the British directed much of their new bombing strength to attacks on the bases of German U-boats, the Germans used theirs largely to continue the offensive against the towns of southeastern England. On June 13, 1917, in daylight, fourteen German bombers dropped 118 high-explosive bombs on London and returned home safely.

One of the most glamorous American heroes of the war was fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker (center), who scored twenty-six victories in aerial combat. After the war, he parlayed his fame into a successful business career, and he helped to build the modern airline industry. (U.S. Army War College)

Many World War I bombers, such as the Blackburn Kangaroo, were converted passenger planes that returned to passenger service after the war. The Breguet Br-14B2, probably one of the best French-made bombers, was produced until 1926. The Caudron R-11 was the last bomber the French built during the war.

Aces and Bloody April

The honorific title of “ace” was given to any pilot who had downed five or more aircraft, including balloons, unarmed observation planes, and machine gun-armed fighter planes. The dark side of being a fighter pilot was that the vast majority of pilots flew until the war ended or they were killed. It often was only a matter of time until the odds went against individual pilots. This was true of the Red Baron, who was killed on April 21, 1918, as well as of many others, such as Boelcke and Immelman of the Fokker scourge. The top aces who survived the war were truly lucky.

The British often referred to April, 1917, as “Bloody April.” During this month, the British listed 316 RFC pilots and observers as killed or missing and 224 RFC aircraft as having been destroyed. Credit for the losses was given to the inadequate training of new British pilots and to the superiority of the German fighter planes, principally the Albatros D.III, the effect of their shrewdly concentrated organization, aerial tactics, and the skill of the German pilots.

Other Theaters of the War

The RFC was active in northern Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Macedonia (northern Greece), Mesopotamia (Iraq), northern Persia, the Dardanelles and the Aegean Sea, and East Africa. The RFC’s efforts in most of those theaters were in support of ground troops. However, on the Austro-Italian front in northern Italy, the RFC had a strong presence. Great Britain sent seasoned fighter units to northern Italy because the Austro-Hungarian Air Service was very experienced and supported by German fighter and bomber forces. By May, 1918, the British squadrons had shot down eighty-three enemy aircraft on the Austro-Italian front.

In Egypt and Palestine, the RFC aided the breakout of the British Expeditionary Force from the Suez Canal area of Egypt into Palestine. In Macedonia, the RFC primarily was engaged in patrolling over the Bulgarian positions using kite balloons. In the Dardanelles and the Aegean Sea area, the RFC primarily scouted and bombed Turkish positions. The British rarely encountered significant aerial opposition in those diverse areas, with the notable exception of Macedonia.

In the areas of Macedonia, northern Greece, and Bulgaria, a German ace, Rudolf von Eschwege, had twenty victories, three of which were against kite balloons. Von Eschwege’s Bulgarian allies called him “The Eagle of the Aegean.” In October and November, 1917, von Eschwege proved to be a serious threat to the Seventeenth Balloon Section of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) at Orljak in Macedonia. On November 21, 1917, the Allies prepared a decoy balloon with a dummy observer and 500 pounds of explosives. When von Eschwege made his expected attack, the explosive was electronically detonated from the ground. The destructive radius of the blast was sufficient to cripple von Eschwege’s aircraft, and the plane crashed, killing its pilot.