The Great War in the Air
“The aeroplane is an invention of the devil, and will never play any part in such a serious business as the defence of the nation,” thundered Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, at the start of the First World War.
“The aeroplane is an invention of the devil, and will never play any part in such a serious business as the defence of the nation,” thundered Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, at the start of the First World War. Hughes was not alone in mistrusting airplanes, and while the principal powers in Western Europe — Britain, France and Germany — had all studied how aircraft could be employed in war, and had small air forces, there remained much uncertainty as to the role of planes in assisting land armies when war broke out in August 1914. The airplane would go through a massive technological evolution during the course of the war and forever change the nature of warfare.
The fighting on the Western Front in the fall of 1914 saw massive armies crashing into each other, with cavalry and fast-marching infantry attempting to outflank and outmanoeuvre the enemy’s forces. Following their Schlieffen Plan, the Germans plunged southward through Belgium in a giant wheeling action, and then into northern France. The Germans seemed unstoppable, sweeping the Allied forces of Britain, France, and Belgium before them.
But it was aircraft flying over the enemy lines that spotted the German armies separating as they marched on the River Marne in early September 1914, and this allowed for a fierce Allied counterattack that drove back the Germans and stopped their advance. Aircraft proved an essential tool in the opening phase of the war, primarily in giving commanders unparalleled information on the disposition of enemy formations, although poor weather could ground planes and not all generals made use of the available information.
Throughout 1914, there were hundreds of thousands of casualties to the Allied and German forces, with rapid-firing rifles, machine guns, and artillery eventually driving both sides to dig into the ground. Elaborate trenches soon stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea, running some 700 kilometres. With neither side able to bypass the other, all attacks were reduced to frontal, costly assaults. The armies garrisoning the two trench systems were soon stalemated.
Command of the Air
The land armies grew in size, with millions joining the ranks, and the air forces also went through rapid expansion. Germany, France, and Britain trained new pilots and began a frenzied program of building more robust machines. The goal in the air war was to win command of the skies by shooting down the enemy’s planes in order to allow one’s own planes to take photographs of the enemy’s positions, thereby providing important intelligence for one’s commanders, and targets for gunners. The critical role of intelligence gathering was carried out by the observation aircraft, even though most of the attention by writers and myth-makers at the time and ever since has been devoted to the fighters.
The first pilots shot at each other with pistols, rifles, and shotguns, and occasionally dropped metal darts (known as flechettes) or small bombs on targets below. Almost no one died from the bullets or the bombs, and pilots were far more likely to crash as their flimsy planes broke apart in mid-air or were shattered in landings on rough airfields. Even when light machine guns were added to the planes, they were mounted on the top wing. Pilots could only fire them at a 45-degree angle for fear of shooting off their own propellers.
While fighters might patrol two or three times a day, for up to two hours a flight, life at an air station, with access to beds, good food and alcohol, was far superior to that in the front lines. For ground soldiers mired in the trenches, a transfer to the flying services was an escape from mud, lice, and rats. The allure of flight, with its speed, excitement, and single-handed combat, appealed to many soldiers. Those Canadians of good education and good social backgrounds, or who paid for their own expensive private flying lessons, often found spots in the fighting squadrons of the two British flying services: the army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) or the navy’s Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).
With a desperate need to get more flyers to the front, training was often short and insufficient. Pilots were to learn on the job, if they survived the first weeks of patrols and combat. Many did not. The life of the pilot was often brutally short, as experienced fighters shot down rookies who barely knew how to keep their planes aloft.
In the summer of 1915, the Germans introduced a fast new fighter, the Fokker. It was equipped with an interrupter that allowed for the machine-gun bullets to pass between the propeller blades. This enabled pilots to aim directly at targets rather than be forced to fly beneath them and fire upwards. The Allied losses were very heavy in the spring and that time became known among the Allied pilots as the Fokker Scourge.
The Allies eventually captured a Fokker intact and copied some of the technology, but their single-seater fighters—the Nieuport 17, Sopwith Pup, and Sopwith Camel—were often at a disadvantage in battle, partly because the British flying services were ordered to patrol aggressively behind German lines in an attempt to bring the enemy to battle. The Germans could choose to engage or retreat when the odds were unfavourable, and any pilot that crashed without serious injury could soon fly again, while the British and Canadians were made prisoners of war.
As the battle raged above the Western Front, the Germans also took the war to Britain. In January 1915, the first Zeppelins were launched against British cities, to bomb them from a great height. The Zeppelins — enormous steel-framed airships that were filled with hydrogen and lighter than air — carried about two tonnes of bombs.
Despite the widespread outrage in Britain and in neutral United States over the aerial bombardment of civilians, the Zeppelin attacks succeeded in forcing the RFC to pull back fighters from the front to defend against the raids. The RFC fighters had a difficult time climbing to the Zeppelin’s heights, but a number of successful and spectacular attacks using incendiary bullets destroyed several of the Zeppelins. By war’s end, at least 1,500 British civilians had been killed by the bombs.
The Germans curtailed their terror bombing campaign in 1917 and focused more on bombing closer to the armies on the Western Front, increasingly using their two-engine Gotha bombers in that role. The British developed their own long-range bombers (primarily the Handley-Page V 1500) and targeted tactical objectives, although there were plans for the bombing of German cities if the war had gone into 1919.
Training in Canada
To meet the demands overseas for more pilots, new training schools were established in Canada. The private Curtiss school in Toronto, which opened in 1915, graduated 129 pilots. A more formal RFC-run training school was established in early 1917, with the largest school at Camp Borden near Barrie, ON. These schools and bases produced a steady flow of pilots for the front. Over the winter of 1917–18, most of the RFC schools shut down due to the severe cold and, somewhat incredibly, relocated the program to Fort Worth, Texas, where Canadian and Americans trained together. Some 3,135 flyers completed pilot training and 2,500 were sent overseas. Another 7,400 mechanics were trained in the difficult art of keeping aircraft in the air and fixing them when they came down too hard.
Canadian Ace: William Barker
Most Canadians flew on the Western Front, but Canadians like William Barker and Clifford “Black Mike” McEwen distinguished themselves on the Italian Front against German and Austrian pilots. Barker became the most successful scout pilot of the Italian Front and, when he returned to Europe in late 1918, he was involved in a legendary solo dogfight against more than a dozen German fighters. During the desperate battle, Barker shot down three enemy planes, but barely survived three terrible wounds. For his bravery he was awarded the Victoria Cross. With his many medals from the Italian Front, Barker emerged from the war as Canada’s most decorated airman.
In the early part of the summer of 1916, when the Germans were outnumbered over the Somme battlefields in northern France, they suffered a series of defeats, losing over 50 aircraft in July and August. Reeling from the losses, the Germans strengthened their squadrons in the Somme region, and by the end of November the RFC there was on the back heel.
The Germans had aerial ascendancy from late 1916, flying in larger formations, with multiple fighters, including the new Albatros DI. The fast and manoeuvrable Albatros series of fighters provided a significant advantage to the Germans. Aces like Oswald Boelcke, Max Immelmann, and Manfred von Richthofen (better known as the Red Baron) shot down dozens of fighters and observation planes, although, attesting to the ferocious and costly nature of aerial combat, all three German aces would be killed in battle during the course of the war.
The slow and vulnerable British observation planes — the two-seater BE2 series or the Bristol F2a (Brisfit) — were often the victims of the German fighters, but their work remained vital in photographing the front, observing enemy fortifications, and even working closely with the artillery to more effectively destroy enemy guns that were dug in and camouflaged behind enemy lines.
During the Allied Arras Offensive of April 1917, which included the attack and capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps, the Germans were brutally effective in shooting down Allied fighters. With the RFC flying offensive patrols, the Germans continued to pick their battles, seeking to avoid the faster scouts and massing their aircraft against the vulnerable observation planes. The RFC lost 316 airmen during the month that it called Bloody April.
Bishop and Collishaw
The Allies responded by flying in larger formations to protect themselves, and both sides put up more planes and squadrons. In the summer of 1917, Raymond Collishaw of the RNAS commanded a group of four other Canadians, who, flying Sopwith Triplanes, were known as the Black Flight. Fighting the cream of the German air force, including von Richthofen’s Flying Circus, they were a deadly team. In June and July, Collishaw claimed 30 enemy aircraft destroyed, and the Black Flight downed 68 aircraft in total. However, by the end of the summer, three of the five members of the Black Flight had been shot down. Collishaw’s skill and leadership was widely recognized, and his wartime record of 60 victories made him the highest ranking ace in the RNAS.
Even more famous than Collishaw was Canada’s William ‘Billy’ Bishop. Like many Canadians, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. But he sought escape from the drudgery of the camps in England and enlisted in the RFC. In early 1916, he proved a brave observer over enemy lines. He survived these dangerous missions and was transparent in his desire for fame, seeking to be a fighter pilot. While he was never a great flyer, he possessed rapid reflexes, became a deadly shot, and was extremely aggressive. Even though he flew the outdated Nieuport 17 in early 1917, he quickly ran up kills against his opponents, driving down and destroying enemy planes almost daily. Flying three to four patrols a day, he often set out on his own, and brazenly attacked the enemy, even when he was outnumbered. With so many friends killed around him, especially during Bloody April, he sought revenge and developed a bloodthirsty streak.
Rapidly becoming a recognized hero, Bishop set out alone on 2 June 1917, on a dawn patrol. He claimed to have found a German airfield, shot down three planes as they were taking off, and then fought his way back to Allied lines. Bishop was feted for his bold action and recommended for a Victoria Cross, although there were no witnesses to his act. The VC was awarded, although there were rumbles of disbelief at the time that Bishop’s story seemed unlikely. Ever since, veterans, experts, and historians have sought to determine the veracity of the unwitnessed VC raid, with some accusing Bishop of faking his exploits. Evidence remains inconclusive either way, and the controversy has never been settled.
Bishop finished the war with 72 kills, the highest in the British Empire, although this is contested by some historians. It was an inflated number, but almost all of the kills by the aces of the British flying services were inflated, as they included scores for shooting down balloons, as well as all the other vagaries of determining if an enemy plane crashed while in combat at 10,000 feet. Bishop remains both a hero and a lightning rod of controversy, but no one has ever questioned his skill and bravery as a fighter pilot.
Much of the Allied and German publicity and propaganda surrounding the air war stressed the appeal of flying and the supposed chivalry of these new “knights of the sky,” but the stress on pilots was relentless. The physical strain of flying the unwieldy aircraft usually left pilots bathed in sweat. In winter time, fur-lined suits, flying goggles, scarves, and whale oil on exposed skin reduced the chance of frostbite, but it remained a problem and all flyers suffered in the freezing conditions at high altitudes. At about 10,000 feet, flyers also had to deal with oxygen deprivation (hypoxia), which could leave them slow to react to threats.
Long-service pilots suffered ongoing strain, with many unable to sleep or find peace. Young men lost weight and suffered ulcers. Too many sought escape with alcohol. The fear of most pilots was to go down as a ‘flamer,’ with the engine on fire, the flames blowing back into the cockpit and burn alive. Most flyers carried a pistol or revolver to end their lives in case of such a horrible occurrence. While the German pilots were issued parachutes, the British authorities refused to let their pilots use them, in the callous belief that it would provoke pilots to abandon their damaged planes and not try to bring them down in one piece. Lives were lost unnecessarily.
Dogfights and Ground Attacks, 1917-1918
The last two years of the war saw massive dogfights above the trench systems, as large formations attacked one another for control of the skies. The new robust fighters racing at over 160 kilometres per hour could spin, roll, loop, all the while firing at the multiple enemy fighters that whirled and dove around them in mad melees. The casualties were heavy, but like the war on the ground, neither side could achieve full victory.
Fighter planes also experimented with attacking forces on the ground, machine-gunning anything that moved. These operations were dangerous and often costly in airmen's lives, as infantrymen turned all their weapons on the low-flying aircraft, but they were effective in wreaking havoc. By war’s end, in a series of battles known as the Hundred Days campaign (August – November 1918), the Allies honed an all-arms attack doctrine that combined infantry, artillery, tanks, and aircraft to break through the enemy lines.
Why no Canadian Air Force?
The Canadians made a reputation for themselves as skilled and resilient pilots, and 10 of the top 30 British aces of the war were Canadian. With one in four pilots in the British services Canadian, it was a missed opportunity for Ottawa not to have created its own national flying service, except for the rather pathetic Royal Canadian Naval Air Service, established in September 1918 to protect merchant ships in Canadian waters from raiding German U-boats. The Canadian air service had no impact and it was disbanded shortly after the war’s armistice on 11 November 1918. Overseas, the establishment of two Canadian squadrons in the Royal Air Force (created when the two British air services were combined in April 1918) occurred late in the war, and neither formation saw service at the front. Senior Canadian officers, Sir Arthur Currie, Sir Richard Turner, and Major Billy Bishop advocated for an independent Canadian air force during the war, but it was blocked by Canadian politicians who remained focused on Canada’s expeditionary force of over 450,000 soldiers. It was a missed opportunity that would have further allowed for Canada to distinguish itself within the Allied war effort. It would not be until 1 April 1924 that Canada created the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Some 22,812 Canadians flew in the British air services, and 1,388 were killed during the war. The survivors came back to Canada and, like all veterans, sought to reconnect with loved ones and find jobs. Many of the Great War flyers mapped the North or delivered mail to remote communities as bush pilots. Billy Bishop and William Barker, both wearers of the Victoria Cross, established their own flying companies, while others, like Raymond Collishaw, stayed on with the Royal Air Force, eventually rising to a senior rank and playing a crucial role in the early part of the Second World War.
Air War Heroes
Canadians embraced their hero airmen during and after the war. Comics, novels, films, plays, and histories were written about the “knights of the sky.” The fighter pilots, especially the aces, were lionized, even as the observers were often ignored. Such is sometimes the way in creating heroes.
Throughout the 1920s, flight was romanticized, but new flying machines, especially bombers, sparked fear and anxiety in the 1930s. Military theorists and science fiction writers prophesied that in the next war the bombers would be carrying high explosives and chemical agents to annihilate cities and kill civilians by the thousands. As the Second World War revealed, the prophecies came true, at least in terms of bombers dropping high explosives on military and civilian targets. Tens of thousands of Canadians again flew in bombers and fighters, both with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force.