The Deciding Factor:
An Analysis Of The Air Fighting In The Somme Offensive

By Henry Woodhouse
(Vice-President of the Aerial League of America)

[The Independent, April 6, 1918]

"Had the Allies one thousand more aeroplanes, we could have easily defeated the Germans."

This is the general expression that one hears as the German offensive is raging. It is an official as well as a public expression, and everybody scans the reports to find out what the aeroplanes are doing and whether the Allies have sufficient aeroplanes to maintain that supremacy in the air which is necessary to decide the war in favor of the Allies.

In the intense engagement that is now raging in France, one fact stands out clearly above all others and that is that if the British are enabled to hold the German offensive and roll back the Teuton wave, it will be due to a certain degree of superiority of the Allied air service.

The Allied aviators, and balloon pilots who watch the movements of the enemy from day to day, began working to prevent disaster many months ago. Hidden among a mass of other matter in the dispatches a few days ago was a small paragraph, the significance of which was doubtless lost on many readers. It stated that the Intelligence Corps of the British Army knew that the attack was coming and so General Haig was able to prepare to resist it and bring up reserve divisions in advance of the attack to those places where they would eventually be most sorely needed. This information was secured mainly by the airmen, who, flying low over the German lines, were enabled to make observations that have proved invaluable to the British and the Allies.

Had we had one thousand more bombing and fighting aeroplanes in service, they could have prepared the way to victory. They could have done more than five hundred thousand additional soldiers, or anything else that the Allies could have had.

With one thousand additional warplanes, the Allies would have been able to completely prevent German aviators from mapping the Allied positions; and could have destroyed the military bases, munition dumps, gun emplacements, the railroads upon which the troops, munitions and supplies were transported. In short, they could have prevented the massing of such a huge body of troops as the Germans massed for this drive.

Aeroplanes are the only things that can pass the German lines. They can fly over the German lines and they can do so at night, when neither the anti-aircraft guns nor the German aeroplanes can see them.

Unfortunately, the Allies did not have this additional aerial force. To keep one thousand well trained aviators on the fighting fronts, employing them daily, involves about forty per cent replacements in machines per month. In other words, it takes six hundred aviators per month to keep one thousand fighting continuously, operating day and night. Not all of these aviators are killed or hurt. A large number just "wear out" after a few weeks or months of intensive service, and cannot continue. They must be sent back to rest or to be employed in other work.

As for machines, they are used fast and in large numbers. The anti-aircraft guns are quite accurate at hights of fifteen thousand feet; and speeds up to one hundred forty miles are necessary to maintain supremacy in the air. Landing such fast machines in small fields leads to damaging many.

However, when we consider the tremendous value of each aviator, we find that the air service is the most important and economic branch of the fighting forces.

The dispatches give the number of German aeroplanes brought down by the British aviators in the first three days of the offensive as ninety-four. This is one of the evidences that the Germans have a substantial air services.

One of the dispatches dated March 24 summarized some of the activities of the aviators as follows:

"In moonlight of sufficient brilliance to permit the reading of a newspaper bombing planes and warplanes swarm out, carrying high explosives, far behind the battle zone. They broaden the area of death scores of miles, few villages escaping.

"When the sun rises, the bombers, like prowling night birds, return to their roost; ground fighting speeds up, and scout fleets, succeeding the bombers, fly low over the clashing infantry, harassing enemy columns and observing for the artillery."

The official report on the aerial operations, also dated March 24, read as follows:

"The enemy's low-flying aeroplanes were, most persistent in their attack on our infantry in the forward areas. Many of these machines were attacked and brought down by our pilots. A total of twenty-nine hostile machines were brought down and twenty-five others were driven down out of control. Two enemy balloons were also destroyed. Nine of our machines are missing.

"Our machines on Saturday carried out another successful raid on factories in Mannheim. Nearly one and a half tons of bombs were dropt, and bursts were seen on a soda factory, the railway and docks.

"Several fires were started, one of which was of great size, with flames reaching to a hight of 200 feet and smoke to 5000 feet. The conflagration was visible for a distance of thirty-five miles.

"The weather Saturday again favored operations, and our aeroplanes were constantly employed in reconnoitering positions of troops, in photography and bombing and in reporting suitable targets for our artillery. Many thousands of rounds were fired by our pilots, from low altitudes on hostile troops massed in villages and in the open continuously thruout the day."

"More than fourteen tons of bombs were dropt on enemy billets, on his high velocity guns and on railroad stations in the battle area

"Our bombing aeroplanes were attacked by thirty-two" hostile machines, and a fierce fight ensued. One of the enemy's aeroplanes was brought down in flames and another was downed, and fell in the center of Mannheim. Five others were driven down out of control.

"Despite this severe combat and the enemy's heavy anti-aircraft gunfire all our machines returned except two. During the night ten heavy bombs were dropt on an important railways bridge and works at Konz, just south of Treves, in Germany. Eight of these bombs were clearly seen to be bursting among the railways works.

"Nearly two tons of bombs were dropt from low hights on a hostile aerodrome south of Metz. Six bombs were seen to burst among the hangars and to set fire to some of the huts of the aerodrome. All our machines returned.

"From nightfall until early morning, our night flying squadrons bombed areas on the battlefront in which hostile troops were concentrated, as well as enemy ammunition dumps and large guns. More than fourteen tons of bombs were again dropt by our machines, two and a half tons of which were loosed on the docks of Bruges. All our machines returned."

It is stated officially that this is only the beginning of the intensive warfare that is to follow, one of the great drives that are to follow each other in quick succession hereafter. We must, therefore, concentrate efforts on our aircraft program and put all the manufacturing facilities now standing practically idle in the United States to turn out aircraft and parts.

Consideration on an extended aircraft program must be delayed no longer. The executive committee of the Aero Club of America, which has given thoro consideration to the situation, has made the following report, and presented the following recommendations:

"The situation must be considered from the standpoint of whether we as a nation are going as far and as fast as we can with the aircraft program, and whether the present program is sufficient to insure the constant production of aeroplanes in sufficient number to supply the American aviators in France, train and equip the thousands of aviators under training and to be trained, and contribute to the building of the Allies' forces, so as to gain and maintain the Allies' supremacy in the air.

"If we look at the situation from this standpoint, we find that we are only doing one fifth of what we should do and the main reason is that there are no funds with which to do more. The Government aeronautics organization today is unable to go further essentially because it lacks funds.

"The present aircraft program was made at the time when Italy was victorious and Russia was still fighting energetically. The $640,000,000 appropriations represented the rock bottom cost for the smallest plan that could be made to meet the situation successfully then. It did not allow a margin to take care of changing conditions, and meet unforeseen needs.

"The Italian reverses and the Russian collapse created new conditions, to meet which, we should immediately have tripled our aircraft program. The club officials consulted some of the authorities about it and found that they felt the same way. But Congress was not in session, and nothing could be done, outside of making plans.

"These plans were made public in part when the War Department made public the fact that the estimates include an item for pay of 11,041 aviation officers and 153,945 enlisted men for the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. As it takes an average of two aeroplanes to train each aviator to the high point of efficiency required today and then it takes a minimum of six aeroplanes per aviator to keep him fighting for a year and it takes a spare motor for every motor used, there would be required 80,000 aeroplanes and more than twice that number of motors. Also a much larger number of schools for aviators and mechanics than there are now.

"To carry out this program would take an appropriation of about $3,000,000,000, or about five times the amount the authorities have had to work with.

"This is a large sum, but it is small compared with the cost of the war, which is about $500,000,000 a day, including economic loss due to cessation of commerce, and the enormous destruction of life and property.

"The Aero Club of America officials went over these figures with different Government officials and they agreed that such a program was necessary—and they felt that Congress would give the necessary appropriations soon after convening.

"This has not yet been done and the Government aeronautic organization's hands are tied until Congress allows further appropriations.

"Provided ample funds are allowed, the situation can be saved even at this late hour and the production of aircraft motors, and equipment quadrupled in the coming few months-—there being a substantial foundation to build on."

No time should be lost in adopting the plan which is to give the Allies the supremacy in the air, which is so vital, as it will decide the war in favor of the Allies.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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