How Battles Are Fought in the Air

By Laurence La Tourette Driggs

[Harper's Monthly Magazine, February 1918]

Ridiculed and shunned by the preceding generation, the flying-machine now dominates a war-lustful world. It is the eyes of the army.

It is more than that. It constitutes the sole means of surmounting that insurmountable cross-continent barrier where the great issue is stubbornly facing itself—where they shall not pass is petrifying into an immovable bulwark. It alone shall pass.

An imaginative friend is needed for the aeroplane arm in warfare. For, mark you, we cannot consult history or turn to an encyclopedia for information on this subject. Here is mankind suddenly presented with a new instrument for seeing and killing, a new science to be learned, requiring new devices to be imagined and perfected.

We collect all the known data in the world. We experiment with every suggestion. We select the best of engine, body, propeller, and machine-gun. And then comes the question, "How are battles best fought in air?"

Neither generals nor military experts can assist us here. It is an unexplored, uncharted field. New possibilities are discovered with every combat. Hitherto established boundaries are penetrated and left behind in every day's experiments.

Secret improvements occasionally give this side or that the coveted superiority in the air. Then the ultimate capture of an aeroplane explains its secrets to the enemy and soon the balance is reestablished. Two months after we launch our new devices we find them part of the enemy's equipment.

To grasp comprehensively the difficulties and dangers of battles in the air it is essential that the capabilities and limitations of the war aeroplanes themselves be understood.

Two classes of flying-machines must be borne in mind—one, the heavy aeroplane for carrying bombs, heavy armament, or pilot and observer, which may be designated as the two-seater; the other class is the light, fast fighting-machine or chasing-machine, always a one-seater.

Zeppelins and all other gas-balloon cruisers may be disregarded. Their maximum speed is but half that of the aeroplane. Their huge bulk affords a vastly larger target for gunners. Consequently they are not of interest and importance in a contest between rival air forces.

The fighting-machine has two essential characteristics—speed and destructiveness. If you are piloting a slower machine than your enemy you cannot overtake him, but he can overtake you—your superior armament of destructiveness is useless to you unless you do overtake him.

Slower two-seaters are used for observing, for photographing, for spotting artillery fire, for bomb-dropping. But these machines are not relied upon to defend themselves against swifter enemy fighting-planes. An especial guard of fast fighting-planes accompanies these slower machines while they are engaged in their work, for the sole purpose of defending them against air attack. If an enemy squadron is encountered, these machines turn tail and make for safety.

Anti-aircraft guns on the earth cannot defend the upper skies against aircraft sorties with any hope of success. Vulnerable parts of the aeroplane are armored against penetration by machine-gun or rifle bullet. Heavier guns require more time for firing. The gunners must experiment with several smoke-shells before they can estimate the altitude of the aeroplane. No range-finder has yet been devised that tells with any approximation to correctness either the altitude or the speed of the approaching aeroplane.

Moving at one hundred and twenty miles an hour, the aeroplane covers one hundred and seventy-five feet each second! Flying at twelve thousand feet elevation, the average anti-aircraft shell will not reach it under eight seconds. During these eight seconds the aeroplane has darted away fourteen hundred feet—in any direction it chooses!

Sheer luck alone leads to a meeting between aeroplane and bursting shell. Even these chance encounters rarely result in such a mortal hit that the machine is brought to earth. Experience having shown that the only defense against aircraft is aircraft, both sides have developed with all their ingenuity the deadliest types of fighting-aeroplanes.

The Germans have three types of this speedy fighting-machine—the Fokker, the Walvet, and the Albatros. The French and American pilots have met these machines with the Nieuport and the Spad. The British have produced the Bristol Bullet, the Sopwith, and the Vickers Scout.

These machines are all similar in general appearance, but differ greatly in various details. The German Mercedes engine is concededly the most reliable motor known to aviation. The German aeroplanes, as a rule, show better workmanship and will stand more strain than those of the Allies.

One, two, or three rapid-fire guns are mounted on each of these fighting-machines. Usually they are fastened rigidly alongside the engine, pointing dead ahead through the revolving propeller. Often they are mounted on the top plane where they shoot over the top of the propeller.

The latest German Albatros is the quickest and deadliest fighting-aeroplane yet devised. It mounts three rapid-fire guns so pointed as to converge the bullets fifty meters ahead of the machine. Fired simultaneously when the aeroplane is headed straight at the enemy pilot, these guns cut a cone-shaped zone of fire with deadly effectiveness.

It is essential that the fighting pilot learn the character and location of this armament on each type of enemy machine so that he can approach it from its blind side in delivering the coup de grâce.

The German pilot uses the Maxim, the Spandau, the Parabellum, and Lewis gun; the French have adopted the Hotchkiss and Lewis; the British use the Lewis and Vickers machine-gun. All shoot a bullet approximately .30 of an inch in diameter, and all have the same rapidity of fire—about four hundred shots per minute.

The synchronizing device which is now used by all the combatants to permit firing through the propeller orbit without hitting the blades was invented by a French pilot, Roland Garros. By a strange fatality he himself fell a prisoner into German hands and his device was immediately copied.

Upon the fall of Antwerp a number of the Lewis machine-guns were found by the Germans in the Lewis factory near that city. One facetious Teuton thereupon wrote a letter to Colonel Lewis, telling him they liked the gun very much, but they intended to add to it some improvements, which they did—including the firing of exploding bullets therefrom, which violated their agreement of The Hague Convention of 1899. Kiffen Rockwell, an American aviator of the Lafayette Escadrille, was killed by one of these exploding bullets. Balsley, another American pilot, who is still in a Paris hospital, had taken from his body ten pieces of another exploding bullet, which he is carefully preserving as first-hand evidence of this frightfulness.

A maximum speed of one hundred and thirty miles per hour is attained by these fighting-planes. They can climb at the rate of one thousand feet per minute.

Landing speed, or the minimum headway with which these speedy planes can be kept under control, is approximately one hundred miles an hour. If one imagines running upon a rough field in an automobile at such terrific speed, he can judge of the difficulty in safely landing these swift aeroplanes. In fact, the aeroplane is far more fragile and top-heavy than the automobile.

The commanding officer of one of the largest flying fields in Europe told me a few months ago that he had but one pilot in his Escadrille who could land at night in one of these fast scouts without breakage. Only the most skilled of the airmen are intrusted with them.

So the maximum speed in the air is limited by the minimum landing speed. Until a new device is perfected whereby landing can be made safer, we cannot expect faster fighting-machines than those of to-day.

Flying was introduced to the world as a thrilling sport. England, France, and America find it difficult to employ this weapon in warfare except in a sportsmanlike manner. Our far-seeing enemy, however, quickly abandoned this principle.

Much has been made by the Allied airmen over the German reluctance to venture into enemy territory to offer an air attack. Statements appear frequently in the press to the effect that the Allies have the supremacy of the air; that we have to seek out the German aeroplanes far into their territory; that they never venture over our lines except for bomb-dropping at night or a well-guarded reconnaissance by day; that their fighting-planes never give battle unless they are overpowering in numbers; that when they do attack they sweep down out of the clouds, fire one volley and dive on down to safety, refusing further combat.

We are hasty if we assume such charges prove cowardice, or even weakness, in the German Air Service. Flying and fighting have never been regarded by the German military as a sporting proposition. They are part of a carefully scrutinized program of "military efficiency."

The "star" German airman, Boelke, who had forty-five air victories to his credit, and who did much to establish the present program of air tactics for his service, stated in a letter to his mother:

"It has been said that German airmen never fly over hostile lines. As regards chasing-machines, that is true; but it should be remembered, first, that our new Fokkers have some features which we ought to keep to ourselves; and, second, that our object is only to prevent hostile aeroplanes from carrying out their observations. It is for these reasons that we prefer to wait for them where we expect to meet them."

This is an illuminating statement when the military results of such method are analyzed. "Chasing-machines" or fighting-aeroplanes have no other function over the enemy's lines than fighting. They are the lightest, swiftest, and quickest climbing machines in the service. They cannot carry bombs or observers. To do so would reduce their speed and make them easy prey to the faster planes of the enemy.

For them to seek a combat over the enemy's lines, then, not only increases the risk of loss, but may drop the expensively trained pilot a prisoner and the machine a valuable prize of "new features" into the enemy's hands. If newly designed aeroplanes are not flown over the enemy's territory the chance of their falling into the enemy's hands where their secrets are disclosed will be remote indeed. So the apparent cowardice of the German pilots may, after all, be better military strategy than our own "free lance" style of adventurous combat.

The second charge of unsportsmanlike conduct brought against the German pilot lies in his refusal to accept combat upon equal terms. So many instances of this are seen that our pilots are inflamed to an impulsive contempt of their adversaries and recklessly dive upon overwhelming odds. If successful, this bravery is hailed with satisfaction by press and people. If the "overwhelming odds" naturally overwhelm, melancholy reference to one more missing aviator is recorded in our official reports.

The method of Fokker attack is to lie in wait, singly or in groups above the clouds, until an enemy aeroplane is within striking distance below. Then the attack is launched by an almost vertical dive upon the helpless victim. The Fokker's speed is augmented by gravity, and the enemy plane has no chance of escaping by retreat. At fifty to one hundred yards distance the Fokker pours m a stream of bullets from two machine-guns. Passing under the enemy, the Fokker swoops on down to his flying-field without regard to whether or not he has disabled him. He abandons the field, once he has executed his diving attack.

By these tactics the individual Fokker rolls up record scores of victories with little risk to himself. Incidentally, very few machines are built strong enough to endure the structural strain of this favorite dive of the Fokker. The wind pressure against the planes and structure is tremendous. Probably the French Nieuport single-seater is the only other chaser-machine stanch enough to permit similar "stunts."

The German Walvet single-seater is a new fighting-aeroplane which during the summer of 1917 has divided the responsibility of defending the German skies with the Albatros and the Fokker. It also mounts two Maxim machine-guns which shoot through the propeller.

Accurate descriptions of this machine are not available, for up to the present time not one of this type has been captured intact by the Allies. With the coming of the Walvet another new system of German air tactics was disclosed to the Allied airmen.

The Walvets are like the Fokkers, strictly a chasing-machine, though lighter and faster. Like the Italian policemen, they always stalk for their prey in pairs. When a single adversary is discovered (usually it is a slow-going two-seater engaged in reconnaissance and photographing flight) the two Walvets dart upon their victim. One engages in the actual combat which ensues; the other stays aloft at a safe distance, ready to give the alarm if help approaches. If, as sometimes happens, the first is vanquished, the twin does not wait to renew the conflict, but darts away to his aerodrome in safety. Always flying and fighting in groups, the German airmen adhere strictly to previous orders. If their system of fighting be bad it is discontinued as a system, but the individual German pilot does not take the liberty of violating his orders.

Such systems are evidently recommended and introduced by the "star" air-fighter himself. For instance, there have been three German pilots whose records are outstanding. Immelman, the first to attain fame, was engaged in the daily raids over Paris during the first months of the war. He brought down a total of seventeen enemy aeroplanes before he himself was shot down on June 18, 1916. Captain Boelke, at the zenith of his daring career, stood above Immelman, both in tactics and as a vanquisher of his opponents. He, too, was finally brought down in October, 1916, by Captain Ball, a British flying officer, after having forty-five victories to his credit. To-day Baron von Richthofen, leader of the "traveling circus" squadron, in his small Albatros, has the "world record" of sixty-two enemy aeroplanes. He was wounded in an air battle last June, according to the Berliner Zeitung, and has not since appeared at the front.

Such individual methods and successes are soon adopted in the German Air Service as standard tactics. So the Immelman way is the present Fokker system. Boelke tactics gave birth to the group system, now inseparable from Germanic air attacks. Von Richthofen's successes with his traveling circus introduced the custom of camouflage in the German Air Service—painting the machine such colors as tend to make it invisible or indistinguishable.

Lieutenant Schaefer, who had a record of thirty enemy machines when he was finally killed on June 17th last, established the Walvet tactics. He invariably went in himself for the fight, leaving his companion to sit above him to guard against a surprise attack.

Boelke once said to an American interviewer: "The great principle of the German aviator is to operate with the minimum of risk. The English seem to consider war in the air as, above all else, a sport; while the French, with a rare and courageous fatalism, fly and fight not for pleasure, but with a consecrated ardor for their duty."

The British have, in accordance with their time-honored slogan, "Every Englishman is expected to do his duty," consistently refused to award the personal victories of their airmen with the popular acclaim that attends this spectacular appeal to public imagination and favoritism. England neither publishes the individual victories of her distinguished aces nor honors them with coveted medals, as is done in both France and Germany. As long as other British warriors are doing their duty as efficiently, even if in less spectacular manner, blunt English justice does not yield to popular clamor for the names and records of her air gladiators.

Through aviation channels, however, come fairly accurate reports of the British airmen, and the record is held by Capt. William A. Bishop, a Canadian, who has shot down forty-five German aeroplanes.

The famous Captain Guynemer of the French Flying Corps had thirty to his credit on March 12, 1917; thirty-four on March 17th, forty-three on June 1st, and fifty-two on August 11th. He was killed September 11th last, and fell into the enemy lines.

Adjutant Lufberry of Wallingford, Connecticut, flying in the American Lafayette Escadrille, has the leading American score of fifteen enemy machines. Captain Barraca, Italian ace, has twenty-six.

In distinct contrast with the methodical German strategy, the Allied Air Scouts have been directed while in the air almost entirely by their own superior wits. The daily patrol goes aloft for its shift of "ceiling work." An individual pilot of unquestioned bravery spots in the distance a German squadron approaching. On he dashes regardless of the enormous odds against him. In his eagerness to "get a Boche" he disregards his value as a fighting unit. It is the custom to call one French or English pilot the equal of two of the Huns. He will take on ten to one to make a record!

Unfortunately, the official reports of losses vary so greatly that no definite score can be compiled to indicate the results of such different methods of air fighting. Thus the British report for May, 1917, announced a total of 713 aeroplanes shot down in that month, of which 442 were German and 271 of the Allies. The official German report for the same month gave a total of only 341, of which 79 were German and 262 of the Allies!

Sobered by the relentless and unscrupulous German air-fighters, our pilots are now losing much of their former sporting habits, and are gradually adopting caution. Accustomed to the tactics of their enemy, they are organizing to meet him at his own game.

And the knight-errant who, singlehanded, attacks a dozen enemy fighters, is no longer being praised by his commanding officer. A foolish risk in the air service is a costly blunder, when the value of the aeroplane, the pilot, and his schooling is computed.

On the other hand, flying stunts formerly discouraged are now diligently taught the pilots. Looping-the-loop, side-slipping, and the deadly tail-spin are resorted to in every-day conflicts between fighting-machines. Standing up on the tail and firing upward through the floor of the enemy craft above was a favorite method of attack practised by the French pilot Guynemer.

Marvelous progress has been made during these years of war, both in the art of building and flying aeroplanes, and in the science of aerial strategy. Many years of peace would have been required to advance the flying-machine to its present position.

At the outbreak of the war I witnessed the daily raids over Paris of the celebrated Immelman. A French aeroplane sailed after him, shooting at him with revolver and rifle. No other armament was carried at that period. Here foe first faced foe in aeroplanes. Both sat up late that night devising means of supremacy. So scornful was the German raider of gun-fire from below or pistol-shots from defending aeroplanes above, that he would drop into Paris streets a brief note tucked away in a sack of sand, informing his enemies that he would return to-morrow at five o'clock with more bombs. And return he did on five consecutive afternoons!

As long as both sides are equipped with aeroplanes of equal speed and equal destructiveness the victory must hang upon superior strategy or overwhelming numbers. But once the enemy's fighting-machines are swept from the skies, their slower aeroplanes will not dare to appear, while ours may carry on their observations and bombing raids unopposed.

Here, then, is America's opportunity!

Contemptuously ignoring German methods has been a costly blunder of our allies. Rather to the opposite extreme should we go, imitating shamelessly every point of value possessed by the enemy, whether in machine construction or in air tactics. We can begin where they have arrived. At an equality there, any improvements we add will advance us so much toward superiority.

Our experts, then, are collecting every item of information regarding fighting-aeroplanes and their armament, and this collection is to be constantly kept up to the minute. The speediest and deadliest machine is the master of the air. To produce this masterpiece, guns, mountings, engine and aeroplane must all be considered, designed and built together, in one fighting unit, with due regard to surpassing the best European models.

Those German machines that fight and succeed in running away may live to fight another day. The ultimate victory in the air will be given to the side producing the swiftest and most destructive single-seater.

What would an American fleet of two thousand superior fighting-planes accomplish along the great barrier?

Picture the "front" as it appears on a fresh, clear morning. Stretched from Verdun west to St.-Quentin, its parallel lines of trenches wind in and out of valleys and mountains, cross plains, swamps, cities and forests. The great barrier lies between!

Observation-balloons begin to pop up and lurch heavily in the breeze. At least two score are in sight up and down the barrier, straining at their tethers some four or five miles back of No Man's Land.

Artillery quiets down while the gunners sip their coffee. Sentries are relieved. Long files of sleepy men pass through communication trenches to the rear, while the adjoining alleys are filled with the day shift advancing to the first-line defenses. Though no factory-whistles announce it, the day's work is begun.

Suddenly a distant hum strikes the ear. It grows in volume like the oncoming of a tornado. Friend and foe alike pause and survey the southern sky. A stupendous sight! There, far up in the heavens, advances northward a long line of roaring aeroplanes, flying swiftly onward, wing and wing, covering the arc of the horizon as far as the eye can reach! A quick estimate is made as they pass overhead. They are at an altitude between ten thousand and twelve thousand feet. Twenty aeroplanes to a squadron. A slight break in the line, then twenty more. They are flying in squadron formation, twenty machines to a mile. Two thousand fighting-machines are passing over the barrier into the German camp between Verdun and St.-Quentin!

Behind the swift raiders comes a line of heavier, slower aeroplanes. They do not fly so high and are readily distinguished as bomb-droppers. Each carries half a ton of high-explosive bombs fastened in a rack underneath the fuselage. The pilot releases each bomb separately, or all together, by a turn of his wrist. One machine in this group carries pilot and observer. The observer is the officer in charge of the little fleet. He carries a wireless radio outfit on his machine. Also one or two carrier-pigeons to send back with any imperative messages should his wireless instruments fail.

He watches the ground below for changes in the enemy's position since yesterday. Any alterations discovered he jots down on the roller map board in front of him. An automatic telescopic camera catches the scene below in response to the pressure of his thumb on the button.

The officer frequently searches the neighboring heavens to detect the approach of enemy aircraft. The advance-guard of scouts, however, has swept away all loitering enemies. Only those ascending in his rear from enemy flying-fields need be apprehended.

White puffs of smoke ahead indicate that the anti-aircraft batteries have his altitude. With a gesture to his pilot behind him, he turns sharply to the right and climbs to a higher level. The entire squadron follows his lead.

A mile to the east of him he sees a sister squadron of bomb-droppers. On beyond them, still another group is winging its way into the enemy's territory. Each is led by its officer-observer. Each is surrounded by smoke-wreaths of bursting shrapnel.

All three of these squadrons have for their common objective a single railroad center and important German supply-station, lying almost forty miles back of the front. Strongly fortified and defended as it is, tremendous losses can be inflicted by these thirty machines dropping their fifteen tons of high explosives upon supply-depots, railway bridges and stations, barracks and ammunition-dumps.

Other bombing squadrons have other objectives. No matter where the Germans choose to consolidate their defending aeroplanes, many of the raiding squadrons will attain their goal.

Hazardous spy service and frequent aeroplane sorties have located very definitely the exact position of these objectives.

Outnumbered and taken by surprise, the enemy aircraft do not take the defensive. Our bombs are dropped and our machines return in safety to their aerodromes.

And now our artillery spotters fly over the enemy's positions, again guarded overhead by the squadrons of our chaser-machines. The "target" is soon located and quickly destroyed.

Here at last come the enemy aircraft. Having collected all their available fighting-aeroplanes, they are ascending to annihilate our squadrons separately!

Our spotting-machines scurry off home, snapping out wireless messages for more fighting-machines to the rescue.

And now the battle royal is on! From every point in the heavens dart in the gleaming planes, some bearing the black Maltese cross of the Kaiser, some the red, white, and blue star—our own. Below, jaded men stand up in their trenches and gaze, white-faced, into the crowded sky. The decisive conflict of the war is begun!

The staccato rap-rap-rapping of the aeroplane machine-guns melts into a continuous roar. Here and there flaming and crippled aeroplanes poise and flutter helplessly downward. Frequent collisions occur, some by accident, some deliberately contrived.

Darting, diving, circling, and swooping, the combatants separate and mingle again. At the outskirts of the tumult individual duels are in progress. Here and there escaping Fokkers are being rapidly overhauled by the speedier Nieuports. On another side a Spad is surrounded by a circle of Albatros machines and the death stroke is about to fall. Suddenly the Spad leaps up and over in a quick loop-the-loop and comes out behind his pursuers, pouring into them a stream of bullets as he flattens out his course. Here another, surrounded and apparently doomed, suddenly drops into a tail-spin and sinks rapidly down from the swirling pack of enemies.

Manoeuvering for position, two enemies fly side by side. Suddenly out of the blue comes a darting Sopwith; the leaden hail pierces the top plane and crumples up the German pilot in his seat.

Propellers are broken, wings are shot away, engines are struck and disabled. Machine after machine separates from the revolving mass and glides or tumbles to earth.

No account of the score can be estimated by either side. No means of communication exist between friends or enemies in this hellish roar. Reckless of formation or position, the air-fighters dive and shoot, then climb back again to the center of the gigantic whirlpool, standing on tail to pour in another volley through the floor of the enemy aeroplane overhead.

Outnumbered, outclassed, and outfought, the Germans remaining volplane down to escape. Some are driven into French territory. Some voluntarily surrender, some are able to get away.

Now the barrier is no longer insurmountable even to our infantry. Enemy artillery is silenced and their troops confined to dugouts by our aeroplane-directed shells. Their rear communications have been cut. Their supplies of food, munitions and men have ceased.

From St.-Quentin to Arras, from Arras to the North Sea, the aeroplane fleet repeats its gigantic manoeuver. Six months are required to permit Germany to rebuild her air squadrons.

But six months will see the last vestiges of the great barrier swept clean. Six months will see another American fleet, double its former size, produced from the home of Darius Green and his Flying Machine.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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