A History of Aeronautics

Author: Evelyn Charles Vivian

XX. The War Period--II

There was when War broke out no realisation on the part of the British Government of the need for encouraging the enterprise of private builders, who carried out their work entirely at their-own cost. The importance of a supply of British-built engines was realised before the War, it is true, and a competition was held in which a prize of L5,000 was offered for the best British engine, but this awakening was so late that the R.F.C. took the field without a single British power plant. Although Germany woke up equally late to the need for home produced aeroplane engines, the experience gained in building engines for dirigibles sufficed for the production of aeroplane power plants. The Mercedes filled all requirements together with the Benz and the Maybach. There was a 225 horsepower Benz which was very popular, as were the 100 horse-power and 170 horse-power Mercedes, the last mentioned fitted to the Aviatik biplane of 1917. The Uberursel was a copy of the Gnome and supplied the need for rotary engines.

In Great Britain there were a number of aeroplane constructing firms that had managed to emerge from the lean years 1912-1913 with sufficient manufacturing plant to give a hand in making up the leeway of construction when War broke out. Gradually the motor-car firms came in, turning their body-building departments to plane and fuselage construction, which enabled them to turn out the complete planes engined and ready for the field. The coach-building trade soon joined in and came in handy as propeller makers; big upholstering and furniture firms and scores of concerns that had never dreamed of engaging in aeroplane construction were busy on supplying the R.F.C. By 1915 hundreds of different firms were building aeroplanes and parts; by 1917 the number had increased to over 1,000, and a capital of over a million pounds for a firm that at the outbreak of War had employed a score or so of hands was by no means uncommon. Women and girls came into the work, more especially in plane construction and covering and doping, though they took their place in the engine shops and proved successful at acetylene welding and work at the lathes. It was some time before Britain was able to provide its own magnetos, for this key industry had been left in the hands of the Germans up to the outbreak of War, and the ’Bosch’ was admittedly supreme—even now it has never been beaten, and can only be equalled, being as near perfection as is possible for a magneto.

One of the great inventions of the War was the synchronisation of engine-timing and machine gun, which rendered it possible to fire through the blades of a propeller without damaging them, though the growing efficiency of the aeroplane as a whole and of its armament is a thing to marvel at on looking back and considering what was actually accomplished. As the efficiency of the aeroplane increased, so anti-aircraft guns and range-finding were improved. Before the War an aeroplane travelling at full speed was reckoned perfectly safe at 4,000 feet, but, by the first month of 1915, the safe height had gone up to 9,000 feet, 7,000 feet being the limit of rifle and machine gun bullet trajectory; the heavier guns were not sufficiently mobile to tackle aircraft. At that time, it was reckoned that effective aerial photography ceased at 6,000 feet, while bomb-dropping from 7,000-8,000 feet was reckoned uncertain except in the case of a very large target. The improvement in anti-aircraft devices went on, and by May of 1916, an aeroplane was not safe under 15,000 feet, while anti-aircraft shells had fuses capable of being set to over 20,000 feet, and bombing from 15,000 and 16,000 feet was common. It was not till later that Allied pilots demonstrated the safety that lies in flying very near the ground, this owing to the fact that, when flying swiftly at a very low altitude, the machine is out of sight almost before it can be aimed at.

The Battle of the Somme and the clearing of the air preliminary to that operation brought the fighting aeroplane pure and simple with them. Formations of fighting planes preceded reconnaissance craft in order to clear German machines and observation balloons out of the sky and to watch and keep down any further enemy formations that might attempt to interfere with Allied observation work. The German reply to this consisted in the formation of the Flying Circus, of which Captain Baron von Richthofen’s was a good example. Each circus consisted of a large formation of speedy machines, built specially for fighting and manned by the best of the German pilots. These were sent to attack at any point along the line where the Allies had got a decided superiority.

The trick flying of pre-war days soon became an everyday matter; Pegoud astonished the aviation world before the War by first looping the loop, but, before three years of hostilities had elapsed, looping was part of the training of practically every pilot, while the spinning nose dive, originally considered fatal, was mastered, and the tail slide, which consisted of a machine rising nose upward in the air and falling back on its tail, became one of the easiest ’stunts’ in the pilot’s repertoire. Inherent stability was gradually improved, and, from 1916 onward, practically every pilot could carry on with his machine-gun or camera and trust to his machine to fly itself until he was free to attend to it. There was more than one story of a machine coming safely to earth and making good landing on its own account with the pilot dead in his cock-pit.

Toward the end of the War, the Independent Air Force was formed as a branch of the R.A.F. with a view to bombing German bases and devoting its attention exclusively to work behind the enemy lines. Bombing operations were undertaken by the R.N.A.S. as early as 1914-1915 against Cuxhaven, Dusseldorf, and Friedrichshavn, but the supply of material was not sufficient to render these raids continuous. A separate Brigade, the 8th, was formed in 1917 to harass the German chemical and iron industries, the base being in the Nancy area, and this policy was found so fruitful that the Independent Force was constituted on the 8th June, 1918. The value of the work accomplished by this force is demonstrated by the fact that the German High Command recalled twenty fighting squadrons from the Western front to counter its activities, and, in addition, took troops away from the fighting line in large numbers for manning anti-aircraft batteries and searchlights. The German press of the last year of the War is eloquent of the damage done in manufacturing areas by the Independent Force, which, had hostilities continued a little longer, would have included Berlin in its activities.

Formation flying was first developed by the Germans, who made use of it in the daylight raids against England in 1917. Its value was very soon realised, and the V formation of wild geese was adopted, the leader taking the point of the V and his squadron following on either side at different heights. The air currents set up by the leading machines were thus avoided by those in the rear, while each pilot had a good view of the leader’s bombs, and were able to correct their own aim by the bursts, while the different heights at which they flew rendered anti-aircraft gun practice less effective. Further, machines were able to afford mutual protection to each other and any attacker would be met by machine-gun fire from three or four machines firing on him from different angles and heights. In the later formations single-seater fighters flew above the bombers for the purpose of driving off hostile craft. Formation flying was not fully developed when the end of the War brought stagnation in place of the rapid advance in the strategy and tactics of military air work.


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Chicago: Evelyn Charles Vivian, "XX. The War Period--II," A History of Aeronautics, ed. Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904 in A History of Aeronautics Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DAB5A2VT23HYVBL.

MLA: Vivian, Evelyn Charles. "XX. The War Period--II." A History of Aeronautics, edited by Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904, in A History of Aeronautics, Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DAB5A2VT23HYVBL.

Harvard: Vivian, EC, 'XX. The War Period--II' in A History of Aeronautics, ed. . cited in , A History of Aeronautics. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DAB5A2VT23HYVBL.