In 1903, two brothers who ran a bicycle-repair shop, created the world’s first successful, heavier-than-air…gasp!…FLYING machine! People marvelled at a new contraption called the ‘airplane’ which could take off, fly where-ever the pilot wanted it to, and then land safely again. They thought that this was a magical new invention that could do marvellous things for mankind and spur it onwards to a new age of technology, science and transportation.
Well, Orville and Wilbur Wright thought so, anyway.
In fact they thought so, so much, that once their newfangled ‘flying machines’ were perfected and reliable, they took their courage by the balls and went off to all the national militaries of the early 1900s. They approached the American, British and even French armies, toting their new toy as a practical weapon and machine of war. With airplanes, you could spot troop-movements, direct men and see the entire battlefield! Armies were so excited about these amazing possibilities, that they jumped on the new invention!
Or…they would have, in a perfect world.
The truth was that most of the commanding officers and generals, all thought the Wright Brothers’ invention was something of a joke, and saw no practical application for this contraption in their arsenals and warehouses.
Just over ten years later, however, they were singing a different tune.
The first Airplanes.
The very first airplanes were used purely to demonstrate that powered, controlled flight was possible. But that was all they were used for. People just didn’t see how such flimsy, wood and cloth machines could be practical in any way other than to provide cheap, five-minute thrill to excited little boys and girls at funfairs! However, this perspective quickly changed with the onset of the First World War.
In the hell of the Somme, Flanders, Passchendeale, Ypres and the Marne, generals began to realise that having ‘eyes in the sky’ that could tell you where things were, would be a huge advantage. Suddenly, the allies didn’t think the Wright Brothers were stupid after all, and a few months after the war had started, airplanes were being used in warfare.
The first planes used in warfare just flew around taking photographs. Fun, huh? They were reconnaissance aircraft, gathering valuable military information. Airplanes were able to fly over enemy trench-systems, photograph them and then fly home, relatively unscathed from enemy fire. Knowing the layout of enemy trenches allowed generals the opportunity of finding weak-spots in enemy defences.
Originally, German, English and French pilots just flew around each others trench-systems taking snapshots, but soon it was realised that such activity should not be tolerated! The airspace above your trenches was YOUR airspace, and to hell with anyone trying to break into it! To this end, pilots started becoming more aggressive with each other. Pilots began taking to the air with revolvers, grenades, rocks and lengths of rope, to shoot, bomb, damage or entangle their enemies. New weapons called anti-aircraft guns were placed around entrenchments to shoot down hostile aircraft. They fired explosive or incendiary rounds, known during WWII as ‘flak’, known during the Great War, by the name ‘Archie’. A new era of warfare had begun.
On the 1st of April, 1915, April Fools’ Day, a French pilot named Roland Garros made history. His plane, the first of its kind in the world, flew into the skies and shot down a German pilot and his plane. While this was not the first air-to-air kill (people had been shooting, bombing and throwing stuff at each other, 1,000 feet up before Garros came along), this was significant because of the type of plane that Garros was flying. It was the first plane specifically designed for aerial-combat, having machine-guns and triggers which the pilot could aim and fire during flight! The Fighter Plane and the Fighter-Pilot had been born!
Aerial-combat, in which planes fought against planes, pilots against pilots, was the latest form of warfare in a war which was rapidly changing everything it touched. Unfortunately for the allies, Garros was shot down and his plane crashed in German territory. Garros survived and was taken prisoner, but his valuable flying-machine was not completely demolished on impact. Before he could set the plane on fire, the Germans had captured it and were soon turning out fighter-planes of their own!
The affect on Allied morale was devastating. Until that point, the British and French had ruled the skies, but now, the Germans had planes that could match theirs! The French and British started making newer, faster, more powerful planes and the era of Aces had begun.
An ‘Ace’ is a pilot who is exceptionally skilled, and who can successfully shoot down enemy aircraft. Now that aerial combat was well-and-truly established, it was time for men with courage and balls to really show what they could do.
To understand just what this was like, you need to understand just how the men were fighting. If you’re picturing sleek, modern airplanes with enclosed cockpits and armour-plating and all that stuff…forget it! WWI fighter-planes were little more than box-kites with engines on them! The majority of the plane was made of wood and canvas! The fuselage was wood, canvas, two pairs of wings, an engine, cockpit and propeller and a wooden rudder and tail-fins at the back. These planes were very light, but also very delicate. If you put your foot in the wrong place, it ripped through the canvas and out you went!
Pilots in planes such as these could expect to be incredibly uncomfortable. Enclosed cockpits did not exist, and the only protection they would have had against the stinging, freezing wind, would have been their leather jackets, flying caps, goggles and maybe some gloves to stop their hands freezing from the windchill! Oh, and scarves. Pilots wore nice, long white scarves. Not to look cutesy for the ladies, but to prevent…skin-irritation, of all things. Without radar, the only way to spot enemy planes was to literally turn your head left and right to search the skies for them. All this twisting and turning rubbed your neck against the collar of your jacket and this could make you very uncomfortable. In a situation where the last thing you want to be, is uncomfortable, the scarves provided much-needed padding to prevent skin-chafing, as well as an extra layer of badly-needed warmth!
Back then…and even today…an instance of aerial combat between two opposing pilots is called a ‘dogfight’. They were called dogfights, probably, because pilots literally flew at each other like mad dogs. Planes could come within inches of smashing into each other and they fired their guns willy-nilly, trying to hit each other. Dogfights were fierce, fast, lethal battles of skill, courage, balls and determination. If you got shot down, you could expect a plunge of several thousand feet to the earth below. Your plane could explode in mid air, it could catch fire, or you could fall out of your cockpit. Few pilots carried parachutes back then.
When planes flew out in ‘sorties’ (a ‘sortie’ is a mission), they would fly out in groups set in strict formations. Pilots organised their planes so that they could attack the enemy as effectively as possible. Planes and their pilots were organised into groups called ‘squadrons’. Each squadron, or squad, had a ‘sqaudron leader’, usually the best pilot with the most experience. His job was to lead his men into battle and to direct the other pilots through the air so that they would know where to go and how to act. In the days before aerial radio-communications, hand-gestures were used to direct your fellow pilots through the air. Squadron leaders usually had their planes painted or marked in some way, so that they would be easily-recognised by Allied pilots during combat. The universal sign of ‘rocking wings’ (moving your wings up and down), was the signal to return to home-base. Better to crash on home soil than in enemy territory.
Taking down an enemy aircraft was difficult at best. Machine-guns were still fairly new weapons back then, and they were prone to jamming during dogfights. Apart from that, you had to find your target before you could shoot at it. And when your target is a plane zooming all over the skies, this is difficult at the best of times. There’s no heat-seeking missiles, there’s no target lock-on, there’s no laser sights, it’s just you, your plane, your guns and your eyes. Everything was done by hand and everything was done manually, using your own judgement, timing and skill.
The most famous Ace of all, was a German pilot. His name was Manfred von Richtofen, more famously known as ‘der Rote Baron’;…The Red Baron. The Baron was credited with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 80 confirmed kills. While 80 doesn’t seem very impressive today, it was damn impressive back in 1917, when aerial-combat was how I described it above. Unfortunately for Richtofen, he was shot down and killed on the 21st of April, 1918. The man credited with shooting down the Red Baron and killing him, with a bullet to the chest, was an Australian soldier named…Cedric Popkin! Popkin was a soldier in the First AIF (the First Australian Imperial Force). At the time of Richtofen’s death, Popkin and his men were manning Vickers anti-aircraft machine-guns and it was Popkin’s firing which shot the Baron and brought down his airplane, his famous Fokker Dr. 1, painted bright red.
Apart from reconnaissance, protecting airspace and spying, airplanes in WWI had another major role to play – air-raids.
Various aircraft, such as the famous Sopwith Camel, were combination fighter-and-bomber aircraft, meaning that they could drop bombs as well as fire machine-guns. In later stages of the war, generals began to see even more possibilities for these newfangled machines, specifically in their ability to bring death to the enemy in ways previously unimaginable.
The Sopwith Camel, a typical, WWI-era fighter biplane.
By 1917, when aerial-combat and warfare was firmly established, Allied airforces and Allied armies began to collaborate with each other in an effort to pool their resources, skills and manpower to win battles. Some later battles went like this…
First there would be an intense artillery barrage, bombing and shelling the enemy trenches. At an appropriate time, rows and rows of tanks rumbled across No Man’s Land, shooting at the enemy soldiers who had survived the artillery barrage. While the tanks moved forward, infantry marched behind, taking advantage of the covering fire provided by the tanks, to engage enemy infantry. Upstairs, Allied bomber and fighter-planes flew overhead, strafing (raking) the ground with lethal swathes of machinegun-fire, killing soldiers in the enemy trenches, followed by intense, aerial bombardment, while below them, their Allied army buddies pressed on to take their target trenches. The airplane had proved its worth as a practical and useful machine of war.