Report from the Fronts #41: the Airplane I

The tank was developed specifically to deal with the problems of trench warfare (see Report #37), and while it did have some impact, at least on the Allied side, its real strategic value would not be demonstrated until the next war.  Better design and more powerful and reliable engines would allow the tank to come of age, and the Germans (ironically, given their lack of interest during the Great War) would perfect its use in mass formations as an offensive spearhead.  One of the elements in this new armored warfare would be close coordination between the tank and a weapon that did come of age, at least tactically, during the Great War: the airplane.

This new heavier-than-air flying technology was still relatively primitive when the war began, and at first it was used as balloons had been for a half century, for observation of the enemy.  Especially important was photographic reconnaissance and spotting for the artillery (though proper coordination took some time to be worked out), and the airplane provided a much more flexible platform than a tethered balloon.  And this was certainly a much more pleasant activity than living in a trench and going over the top.

The Taube

The Etrich-Rumpler Taube, one of the first observation aircraft

Allied observation balloon

German observation balloon

But this was after all a war and the fliers were combatants, and almost immediately they began to greet one another with more than friendly waves.  Observers started carrying pistols and grenades, but hitting, let alone seriously damaging, another aircraft with such weapons was all but impossible.  In fact the first airplane brought down was by being rammed: on 8 September 1914 an Austrian plane was rammed by Pyotr Nesterov over Galicia, killing himself and the enemy fliers.  Frustrated, a French flier, Louis Quénault, equipped himself with a Hotchkiss M1901 light machine gun and on 5 October 1914 shot down a German plane (actually, with an incredibly lucky shot from a rifle after the machine gun’s ammunition was exhausted).  Now the race was on to create a real fighter plane.

The Hotchkiss M1909

Quénault’s plane, the Morane-Saulnier L

Pyotr Nesterov  †1914

Nesterov’s plane, the Morane-Saulnier G

The ramming

The major problem was where to mount the gun.  In two seater aircraft it was easy to mount a machine gun for the observer, but this only provided defensive fire and in any case lighter, faster single seat planes were the obvious candidates for an offensive aircraft.  With only a single flier the gun had to be mounted where the pilot could easily clear jams (which happened frequently) and reload and use the plane itself to aim his fire.  That required the gun to be placed immediately in front of the cockpit, which meant shooting through the arc of the propeller, a dangerous proposition.

The Bristol F.2 two seater with a rear Lewis gun

One way to avoid this was to put the engine with a “pusher” prop behind the pilot, but it was already known that in terms of performance this arrangement was far less effective than a front mounted “tractor” propeller.  Another approach, which was used initially by the British, was to mount the gun (usually a Lewis light machine gun) so that it fired above the propeller arc, which meant on the upper wind of a biplane or a special structure on a monoplane.  The Foster mount allowed the gun to be moved down to the pilot for service (and to shoot upward), but the protruding gun and mount added considerable drag and stressed the wing, which in turn scattered the fired rounds with its vibrations.

Double Lewis guns on a modified Sopwith Camel

The Foster mount on an Avro 504K

The Royal Aircraft Factory FE2D pusher with a (scary) nose-mounted Lewis gun

The Lewis gun

Clearly, the most effective place for the gun was immediately in front of the pilot, which left the problem of the propeller.  The French came up with the “deflector” prop, which sported metal plates on the propeller blades where the bullets would strike, certainly a frightening solution.  The deflected rounds were a significant threat to the pilot, and more dangerous, they placed a serious strain on the engine’s crankshaft as the propeller was repeatedly buffeted.   Nevertheless, from 1-18 April 1915 Roland Garros, flying a Morane-Saulnier L with a deflector prop, shot down three German planes, but on the 18th he was forced to land in enemy territory, perhaps because of engine problems caused by the pounding on the propeller.

The Morane-Saulnier L

Roland Garros  †1918

The armored propeller

Anthony Fokker is rightly known for perfecting the synchronization mechanism, but work on this had been going on in a number of places, and Franz Schneider had in fact patented a device in July 1913 and Raymond Saulnier in 1914.  The problem was that these early mechanisms were still crude, and the frequent – and often disastrous – failures hardly convinced inert and inherently conservative high commands to support the new technology.  Garros’ prop and the planes he downed convinced the Germans.

From the Saunier patent

Raymond Saulnier

From the Schneider patent

Franz Schneider

Severed propeller

Anthony Fokker

The basic idea was to connect the gun and the propeller such that the gun was fired only when the blade was out of the way or was prevented from firing when it was.  Generally this meant some sort of cam on the propeller or crank shaft that would push a rod enabling or disabling the gun at the proper moment.  In a way this was easier for the Germans inasmuch as their machine guns – the Parabellum and the Spandau – had a closed bolt cycle, which could be precisely timed, whereas the favored Allied gun, the Lewis, had an open bolt cycle (look it up), which could not (although the Vickers was a closed bolt).

The Spandau IMG 08

The Parabellum

A Vickers mounted on a Nieuport 17

Fokker’s Stangensteuerung system, developed in the spring of 1915, followed Saulnier’s approach: it employed a cam and reciprocating rod connection that enabled the gun to fire at the proper time rather than interrupting it.  There were mechanical weaknesses, especially with the push rod, and the system could not be easily adapted to twin guns, and this led by late 1916 to the Zentralsteuerung, which eliminated the push rod altogether.  This improvement allowed for a twin gun configuration, vital in concentrating fire for the brief moments when shooting was possible (it is not that easy to shoot down a mechanically simple fabric covered aircraft), and was the system behind the later, more familiar aircraft like the Fokker D-VII.

The Stangensteuerung interrupter gear

The Stangensteuerung system

The Zentralsteuerung system with two guns

Synchronizing the gun and prop

The other warring powers would develop synchronization systems, but the Germans beat them and in May 1915 created the first purpose-built warplane, the Fokker E.I, by adding a Parabellum MG 14 to a modified Fokker scout.  This monoplane (Eindecker) was flimsy and difficult to fly and the synchronization gear still prone to malfunction, but it was a real fighter and the Allies had none.  On 1 July Kurt Witgens brought down a Morane-Saulnier, becoming the first pilot to down an enemy plane with a synchronized gun.  The “Fokker Scourge” had begun.

Kurt Witgens  †1916

Witgens’ Fokker E.I

The Fokker E.II

The Fokker E.III

The Fokker Eindecker gave the Germans control of the air, and Allied observation craft were soon raining from the skies.  This period produced the first real fighter aces, like Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann, men who worked out the basic moves and tactics of this completely new form of warfare.  Boelcke, who taught the future ace, Manfred von Richthofen, produced a set of formal rules for air combat, the Dicta Boelcke, and Immelmann is known for the tactical maneuver called the Immelmann Turn.

Oswald Boelcke  †1916

Max Immelmann  †1916

Immelmann and his Fokker

The Immelmann Turn

The Scourge would last until the beginning of 1916, when the Allies finally caught up in aircraft technology.  In January 1916 the French introduced the Nieuport 11, which still employed a wing-mounted Lewis gun with all its inherent difficulties, but the superior performance of the plane more than compensated. In February the British brought to France the Airco DH.2, a single-seat pusher fighter, which also easily outmatched the Fokker in performance.

The Nieuport 11

The Airco DH.2

These aircraft were soon bringing the Fokkers down, emphasizing that the half year of German superiority was due entirely to the synchronized gun, allowing an otherwise weak aircraft to dominate the skies.  The Allies would now rule the air until the Germans introduced their new generation of more powerful fighters in the fall.

 

 

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Report from the Fronts #28: April 1917

Spring came to the trenches for the third time, and that of course meant a new offensive from the Allies.  Planning began in December for a big push in April 1917, but by then events had clearly overtaken the generals.  The February Revolution had exploded, further undermining chances for a simultaneous offensive in the east, and the Germans had completed the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line on 5 April, eliminating the Noyon salient, whose flanks the offensive was supposed to attack.  More important, by April it was fairly certain that the United States would soon enter the war, and it hardly took a military genius to see the eminent sense in waiting for American forces to arrive in serious numbers.

Withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line

In fact, most of the generals on the front opposed the offensive for these reasons (though Haig did so because of his own plans for a push in Flanders), and both French and British politicians were facing growing heat over the slaughter of the Somme and Verdun the year before.  But the French Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle, supported the offensive, proclaiming it would end the war in 48 hours, and he had the backing of the Prime Minister, Alexandre Ribot.  So, the big show would begin on 9 April with British attacks in the north, and the German capture of the French plans on 4 April did not dissuade the confident Nivelle.

Alexandre Ribot

General Robert Nivelle

Ready for the Big Show

Almost 400,000 British troops would attack around Arras, seeking to draw German forces away from Nivelle’s planned assault on the Aisne River, which of course the German command was now completely aware of.  The Canadian Corps of General Henry Horne’s First Army in the north would assault the Vimy Ridge, Edmund Allenby’s Third Army would attack east from Arras along the Scarpe River and Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army in the south would strike towards Bullecourt, 14 divisions (plus 9 reserve) challenging 12 divisions (plus 5 reserve) of General Ludwig von Falkenhausen’s Sixth Army.

Henry Horne

Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby

Ludwig von Falkenhausen

Hubert Gough

Second Battle of Arras

The BEF had learned a few things since the disaster on the Somme.  One was the importance of counter-battery fire, taking out the enemy artillery, which was easily the biggest threat to advancing troops.  Coordinated aircraft reconnaissance and specialized counter-battery artillery units seemed the answer: despite heavy German opposition in the air eighty percent of enemy artillery was rendered ineffective the first day of the offensive.

British reconnaissance plane

Also important was the development of the creeping barrage, which had been employed before, but with frequent friendly-fire casualties because of the breakdown of timing.  Better ranging, rehearsals and careful calculation of barrel wear (which affected the flight of the shells) allowed the British to lay down a moving curtain of fire a hundred yards ahead of the advancing infantry, while new high sensitivity fuses set off the explosives before the shell buried itself in the ground, destroying the barbed wire rather than simply churning it up.  Tommies would still be killed by shells made in Liverpool but in far fewer numbers.

8″ shells with the instantaneous fuse

Creeping barrage map (First Battle of Passchendaele)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the usual long barrage, especially against the German positions on Vimy Ridge, the Second Battle of Arras kicked off on 9 April and went through eight phases before it officially ended on 17 May.  For those who care: the First Battle of the Scarpe (9-14 April); the Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April); the First Battle of Bullecourt (10-11 April); the Battle of Lagnicourt (15 April); the Second Battle of the Scarpe (23-24 April); the Battle of Arleux (28-29 April); the Third Battle of the Scarpe (3-4 May); the Second Battle of Bullecourt (3-17 May).

In the south little headway was made against the German defenses around Bullecourt, but to the north the Canadians, enjoying the careful planning and preparations of their commander, General Julian Byng, captured Vimy Ridge by 12 April, but failed to take Vimy itself.

German POWs from Vimy Ridge

Julian Byng at Vimy Ridge

On Vimy Ridge

Following a tank at Vimy Ridge

The Vimy Ridge plan

The advance along the Scarpe River was phenomenal, at least initially, and the British set a new record for ground gained, nearly five miles, an almost unimaginable distance by West Front standards.  This, however, created a novel problem: miles of muddy cratered terrain and destroyed roads over which the reinforcements, guns and supplies had to be moved.  The Germans were able to stiffen their defenses even more, and the result was no breakthrough and a return to ineffective attacks and stalemate.

Arras after the battle

Dressing station east of Arras

East of Arras

 

In the end it was the same bloody story.  Vimy Ridge was an important tactical gain, but otherwise all that blown up terrain and destroyed villages cost the Commonwealth about 150,000 casualties.  The Germans of course suffered – perhaps 125,000 casualties – and the offensive did draw some troops from the defenses confronted by the French to the south,  but it would make no difference.

Siegfried Sassoon, another of the trench poets, penned a poem referring to the Battle of Arras but summing up Tommy’s attitude toward the whole damn war:

Siegfried Sassoon 1886-1967

 

“Good morning, good morning,” the general said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” muttered Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

 

 

 

 

The Second Battle of Arras involved a great deal of air combat, as the British sought to protect their artillery spotting reconnaissance aircraft from German fighters.  Unfortunately for the British, German pilots were better trained, flying better planes and using better tactics, and leading the fight was Jasta 11 under the command of Manfred von Richthofen, who had arrived in March.  The result was “Bloody April,” during which the average lifespan in the air for Royal Flying Corps pilots was 18 hours.

Jasta 11 Albatros D.IIIs; the second in line is Richthofen’s plane – all red

British anti-aircraft at Arras

The Red Baron

 

The main push of the Nivelle Offensive, the Second Battle of the Aisne, began on 16 April and was followed the next day by a much smaller offensive near Rheims, the Battle of the Hills (or Third Battle of Champaign).  In the Aisne offensive 53 divisions of the French Fifth, Sixth and Tenth Armies went up against 38 divisions of General Max von Boehm’s Seventh Army, seeking to capture the Chemin des Dames, a fifty mile long ridge running east to west just north of the Aisne River.  The “Hills” in the Battle of the Hills were the Moronvillier Hills, some ten miles east of Rheims, where the French Fourth Army sent 13 divisions against 17 divisions of General Karl von Einem, genannt von Rothmaler’s Third Army.

Karl von Einem, genannt von Rothmaler

Max von Boehm

Second Battle of the Aisne

 

 

 

 

The Chemin des Dames, which had been quarried for centuries, was already a maze of tunnels when the Germans fortified the reverse slope, and while the French ended up controlling most of the ridge, it was costly.  When the Battle of the Hills came to a close on 20 April, the French had suffered over 21,000 casualties in three days and took 6000 German prisoners.  Overall the Nivelle Offensive, which ended in early May, cost the Allies as many as 350,000 casualties, compared to about 163,000 (and some 15-20,000 prisoners) for the Germans.  And there was no breakthrough.

The town of Soupir was in the way

Assault on the Chemin

Chemin des Dames front; note the German trench complex

 

 

Of far greater importance (to everyone but the dead) was the American declaration of war on Germany on 6 April, followed by Congress voting an initial half million troops on the 28th.  Within two weeks Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey had, unsurprisingly, broken diplomatic relations with the United States, and in the month of April Brazil, Bolivia and Guatemala severed relations with Germany, followed in May by Liberia, Honduras and Nicaragua and by Santo Domingo and Haiti in June.  On 7 April Cuba and Panama actually declared war on Germany (United Fruit Company?).

Meanwhile, out in the boonies of the war the British decided on another go at Gaza, which in its four thousand year history had been fought over by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Arabs and French.  The Second Battle of Gaza began on 17 April with a frontal assault by three infantry and two mounted divisions and sundry other troops against the Turkish entrenchments, which stretched from Gaza to Beersheba.  General Kress von Kressenstein was ready, however, and the British called off the offensive two days later, having suffered some 6000 casualties, about four times as many as the Turks.  The British generals were sacked, paving the way for the arrival of Edmund Allenby from the Western Front.

Damaged British tank

Turkish machine gunners

Kress von Kressenstein

The Second Battle of Gaza

 

 

And in East Africa Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris were still dodging a quarter million Allied troops.