aviation at the start
Great War timeline
Aerial Reconnaissance
observation balloons
aerial combat
machine guns
forward firing machine gun
allied AAA guns of WW1
aircraft camouflage
death of an Air Ace
the Fokker scourge
the Red Baron
von Richthofen journal
Zeppelin airships
nocturnal air defence
Lafayette Escadrille
Belgium during the Great War
the Eastern Front
the Russian Front
the Italian Front
Air Effort over Gallipoli
the bombers
the American air effort
the German 1918 spring offensive
America at War
the end of Germany's air effort
aircraft statistics
Aircraft of WW1
WW1 air aces
aircraft designers
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World War I Aerial Combat

On April 1, 1915, French pilot Roland Garros shot down a German Albatros airplane. Although this was not the first air-to-air kill, Garros’ airplane, a Morane Parasol, was the first airplane that was modified specifically for the purpose of aerial combat. Working with designer Raymond Saulnier, Garros had developed reinforced propeller blades that deflected bullets from a forward-firing machine gun (which made hitting the target easier). Over the next several weeks, Garros and his airplane scored three more victories until he was forced to land the plane in Germany territory. He was taken prisoner before he could burn the airplane, which fell into the hands of the Germans.

A crashed German Albatros fighter airplane.

Garros and his airplane ushered in a new era of aviation—both the age of aces and the first aviation arms race. For the remainder of the war, the combatants competed daily for air superiority in order to fly over the enemy’s trenches un-harassed--photographing movements, dropping bombs, and strafing troops. But to gain air superiority, an army’s aerial wing had to have more airplanes and the best pilots. Governments spent the war pushing their designers to build planes that would be faster and more manoeuvrable than the enemy’s. This arms race, combined with advances in personnel training and aerial combat tactics, meant that when World War I ended on November 11, 1918, the airplane’s development had been accelerated to the point where it had become an integral part of military and civilian life.

But it all began with Garros and his Morane Parasol.

Garros' Innovation

During the month before the outbreak of the war, Raymond Saulnier had been working on an interrupter gear that would allow a machine gun to be fired through the propeller arc. He had grown impatient with hang-fire failures so he attached steel deflection plates on the propeller where the bullets passed through the arc. The military lost interest in his idea once the war started and made Saulnier return the machine gun he had borrowed. After a few months into the war, all the pilots were unanimous in their desire for fixed machine guns facing forward that they could shoot in the direction they were flying. Lieutenant Roland Garros, who had been a famous stunt pilot before the war, came to Saulnier and had steel deflector plates attached to his propeller blades and a fixed machine gun mounted in front of the cockpit. The interrupter gear was not installed, Garros relying on the steel plates to ward off the bullets that hit the airscrew. At the end of March Garros took to the air, and in just over a fortnight he had shot down five German planes. On April 19, though, he was brought down by enemy ground fire while strafing an infantry unit near Coutrai. His attempts to set fire to his plane (as all pilots did when they crashed landed in enemy territory, so the enemy could not get their hands on their technology) were unsuccessful and his modified airscrew was quickly in the workshop of Anthony Fokker.


Fokker Eindecker
Anthony Fokker improves Garros' Innovation

The problem of perfecting a machine gun that would synchronize its firing with the rotation of the propellers was the assignment given to Anthony Fokker. In two days the Dutch engineer had improved on Garros' innovation considerably. Fokker Eindekkers were armed with synchronized Spandau machine guns and roamed the skies virtually unopposed for a while. German aces such as Immelman and Boelcke led a reign of terror in the skies, known as the Fokker Scourge. But, as things went in that war for control of the air, the Allies weren't too far behind in making an answer to the Fokker Scourge. A little while later the Allies came up with a synchronized gun designed by Georges Constantinesco

Fighting Airman -The Way of the Eagle

Major Charles J. Biddle, described the principle of the synchronized machine gun.

There is no mystery about a machine gun firing through a propeller without hitting the blades. Nearly everyone understands the principle by which the valves of a gasoline motor are timed so as to open and close at a given point in the revolution of the engine. In the same way a machine gun may be timed to shoot. On the end of the cam shaft of the motor is placed an additional cam. Next to this is a rod connected with the breech block of the gun. When the gun is not being fired the rod is held away from the cam by a spring. pressing the trigger brings the two in contact , and each time the cam revolves it strikes the rod which in turn trips the hammer of the gun and causes it to fire. The cam is regulated so that it comes in contact with the rod just as each blade has passed the muzzle of the gun which can therefore fire at this time only. The engine revolves at least 1,000 turns per minute and as there are two chances for the gun to fire for each revolution, this would allow the gun to fire 2,000 shots per minute. The rate of fire of a machine gun varies from about 400 to 1,000 shots per minute according to the type of gun and the way in which it is rigged. The gun therefore has many more opportunities to fire between the blades of the propeller than its rate of fire will permit it to make use of. Consequently, the gun can work at full speed regardless of ordinary variations in the number of revolutions of the engine.

Allied pilots found themselves helpless against the planes. French bombing missions into German territory were halted. British pilot morale plummeted, as the pilots began to call themselves "Fokker fodder." The German pilots began to accumulate victories and medals steadily. Max Immelman and Oswald Boelke ruled the skies as they flew together, developing aerial combat tactics and techniques. The Germans carefully protected their advantage, never allowing the Eindecker to cross lines where it might be shot down, captured, and copied.

But the era of the Fokker Eindecker ended in 1916, when an Eindecker pilot became lost in heavy fog and landed in France. Soon after, the British debuted the Sopwith Strutter and the French introduced the Nieuport 17. Both airplanes used technology from the captured Eindecker but combined the synchronized propeller system with stronger engines. Beginning with the death of Immelman on June 18, 1916, the French and the British reigned over the skies.

To challenge the Sopwith Strutter and Nieuport 17, the Germans developed the Albatros D.I, the first airplane developed for the sole purpose of aerial combat. But production problems delayed the plane’s debut. As the Battle of Somme began in the summer of 1916, Allied airplanes flew freely over the Front. They strafed the enemy trenches and bombed munitions dumps and supply systems. The German ground troops felt besieged and grew panicky. Any airplane that flew overhead, even those with German markings, was perceived as a threat and would send the troops running for cover. German morale plummeted.

Some of the first Albatross D-IIIs were supplied to the German organization, Jasta 11, commanded by Baron Manfred von Richthofen.

Germany’s loss at the Battle of the Somme proved to German military planners the necessity to gain air superiority. They scrambled to reorganize. National resources were directed toward Albatros production. Oswald Boelke was called back from a war bond propaganda tour. During the preceding year, he had been rallying for a reorganization of the fighter force with specially trained pilots and now he was being given the chance to make it happen.

Boelke organized the German aerial combat resources into Jagdstaffeln ("hunting squadrons") commonly known as Jastas. Jastas were not attached to any ground units but travelled as needed. They did not patrol but were mobilized in response to sightings of enemy aircraft, which they then hunted down. The Jastas defined their mission as "aggressive aerial warfare."

The pilots of the Jastas were trained to follow the Dicta Boelke, a series of aerial combat techniques Boelke had developed that covered both attack procedures and tactics. The Dicta included rules such as securing the advantage before attacking, firing only at short range, keeping the sun behind you, flying to meet an opponent in a dive, and always keeping a line of retreat. The Dicta also covered the basics of formation flying--between four and six airplanes was the desired number for an attack, and a plane was never to be stranded alone during a fight.

Boelke handpicked the pilots for the first Jasta, named Jasta 2. Among these men was a former aerial observer named Manfred von Richthofen, soon to achieve fame as the "Red Baron." The men were trained on the new Albatros airplanes. This emphasis on training and tactics made the Jastas such deadly fighting units.

Jasta 2 hit the skies in the fall of 1916. In the first five weeks, Boelke doubled his personal kill count to 40 until he was killed in a midair collision with a squadron mate. But the Allies had no time to rejoice while Germany mourned. The system Boelke built continued, and command of the squadron passed on to von Richthofen.

The height of the Jastas’ power came during April 1917 at the Battle of Arras, better known as "Bloody April." The French air squadrons had withdrawn to recover from the previous months of battle, but England had decided to fight on despite delays in delivery of the next generation of fighters to the Front. The English believed that their sheer numerical superiority--385 fighters over the 114 German fighters--was enough to ensure victory. During that month, England lost a third of its fighter force, and the flying life expectancy of an English pilot was 17½ hours.

"Bloody April" forced the British to revise its approach to aerial combat, as the Germans had done the year before. It had now been proven that well-trained pilots flying the best planes were more important than numerical superiority. Britain rushed to organize pilot training schools with experienced veterans as instructors. The students were taught using James McCudden’s Notes on Aeroplane Fighting in Single-Seated Scouts and Fighting in the Air. The Sopwith Camel had arrived earlier that year, but it was difficult to fly and there had been a high number of fatal accidents. The new training schools allowed enough training time for pilots to become familiar with the planes before being thrust into the chaos of combat.

In the hands of an experienced pilot, the Sopwith Camel would outmanoeuvre any contemporary airplane, with the possible exception of the Fokker Triplane.
From July 1917, when it reached the Front, until the Armistice, the Camel shot down more than 1200 enemy aircraft.

"Bloody April" was the end of German air superiority. The British Sopwith Camel finally arrived in large numbers, and this small, light airplane with twin forward-firing machine guns flown by experienced pilots soon made a difference. The French returned to the Front with the Spad XIII-- a plane that became so popular that all the Allied forces flew them. And the Americans arrived. Trained at home on their beloved Curtiss Jenny, they also flew the Spad XIII as well as the Nieuport 28.

The SPAD (Societe pour l'Aviation et ses Derives - Society for Aviation and its Derivatives) XIII was designed in 1916 as a French attempt to counter the twin gun German fighters.

By the fall of 1917, the Germans had begun feeling the effects of the war. Shortages of materials such as metal and rubber were slowing down production. Fokker designed what was considered the best fighter plane of the war; the Fokker D.VII, but it was never manufactured in large enough numbers to make a difference. When the peace treaty was signed in November 1918, the D.VII was the only armament specified by name for destruction.

First appearing over the World War I battlefield in May 1918, the Fokker D.VII quickly showed its superior performance over Allied fighters. With its high rate of climb, higher ceiling, and excellent handling characteristics, the German pilots were able to score 565 victories over Allied aircraft during August 1918.

On February 15, 1918, Roland Garros escaped from a German prison camp. He returned to France where he was welcomed as a great hero. But on his return to the airfield, he found that the technological advances of the past three years had surpassed him and he had to learn to fly all over again. The pioneer of aerial combat had already become a part of history.

Although the “Jenny” was generally used for primary flight training, some were equipped with machine guns and bomb racks for advanced training.