Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Birth of the Air War

Artist's Concept of a Dogfight

By Jon Guttman
From Relevance, Summer 2009

When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914, it began a chain reaction that escalated, country by country, alliance by alliance, into a global conflagration. In the course of that conflict, the evolution of aerial warfare might also be said to have escalated.

Aerial reconnaissance had existed since the French use of balloons in 1794, and the first use of airplanes for that purpose was by the Italians over Tripoli in 1911. The first tentative thoughts of monopolizing the air predate that to 23 July 1910, when German pioneer airman August Euler applied for a patent for a fixed, forward-firing  machine gun mounting for an airplane, using a "blowback shock absorber" and a special gun sight. 

Later that year French airplane maker Gabriel Voisin displayed a sketchy mount for a 37mm naval cannon on one of his pusher biplanes. In Britain, Captain Bertram Dickson wrote a memorandum to the standing subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence, advising that the use of aircraft in time of war to gather intelligence "would lead to the inevitable result of a war in the air, for supremacy of the air, by armed aeroplanes against each other." 

Unarmed French Reconnaissance Aircraft During the Battle of the Marne

Further experiments with airborne gunnery followed in the United States and Britain, and as early as 22 August 1914, Lieutenants Louis Aubon Strange and L. Penn-Gaskell of No. 5 Squadron, flying a Farman F.20, claimed to have fired the war's first shots at a German airplane. Occasional exchanges of pistol and carbine fire followed, as well as a drastic resort to ramming on 8 September, which resulted in the deaths of Austro-Hungarian crewmen Franz Malina and Friedrich Freiherr Rosenthal, as well as the Russian who attacked them, Piotr Nikolayevich Nesterov. The first official shootdown using firearms occurred on 5 October when French Voisin 3LA crew Sergent Joseph Frantz and Sapeur Louis Quénault of Escadrille V.24 used up their Hotchkiss machine gun ammunition attacking an Aviatik B.I, after which Quénault used a rifle to hit the pilot and bring down his quarry, killing Feldwebel Wilhelm Schlichting and Oberleutnant Fritz von Zangen of Feldflieger Abteilung 18. 

In 1915 both sides set their sights on developing an effective fighter airplane. The best platform ultimately proved to be a tractor engine single-seat scout with the pilot using his machine gun by aiming his plane at the enemy. That arrangement, however, presented the challenge of firing one's weapon gun without shooting the propeller off. Early French methods involved mounting the gun above the upper wing or attaching steel wedges on the propeller blades to deflect any rounds that struck it. Using the latter on a Morane-Saulnier L parasol monoplane in April 1915, Sergent Roland Garros downed three German planes in quick succession before being brought down on the 18th—either due to engine trouble or an infantryman's rifle bullet through his fuel line, depending on whose story one believed. German notions of copying his deflectors proved unworkable—they might have been able to deflect copper-jacketed French bullets, but steel-jacketed German rounds would shatter them. In any case Anthony Fokker, a Dutch designer working for the Germans, had a better idea.

Since 15 July 1913, Franz Schneider of the Luft Verkehrs Gesellschaft (LVG) had held a patent for using a series of cams and rods attached to the trigger bar, to interrupt the machine gun's fire whenever the propeller was in its way. Ultimately adapting this Gestängesteuerung, or pushrod control as he called it, to the Spandau-produced Maxim LMG 08/15 machine gun, Fokker produced a series of monoplane (Eindecker) fighters, the E.I, E.II, E.III, and E.IV that came to dominate the sky from July 1915 through to nearly a year later. In the hands of aggressive pilots like Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, Otto Parschau, Max Immelmann, and Oswald Boelcke, the "Fokker Scourge," as the Allies called it, launched an aerial arms race that accelerated both the development of the fighter plane and of tactics for its use. 

Actual Dogfight Somewhere on the Western Front

After almost being shot down while rashly hunting alone in Allied territory, Leutnant Oswald Boelcke decided that teamwork, rather than lone exploits, would be necessary if fighters were to gain a meaningful control of the sky. As a minimum, he decided that a fighter pilot should have a wingman flying slightly above and to his side, guarding his tail. 

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