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The Great War Comes To Belgium

   

Belgium was on the frontline of the Great War from the first to the last day of conflict. Many of the newest innovations in aerial combat were used first in Belgium among them were strategic bombing, the staging area for the first Zeppelins raids on London . Since it was a hotly contested region, aces of both sides were based and flew over the country of Belgium.

The Beginning 1914

The war started on 3 August 1914 and on the 4th Farmans of the Belgian Air service were involved in air reconnaissance over the German and Dutch border to detect the invading Germans troops. During the first weeks of the war, the main effort of the Germans was driven to defeat the French Army. During their march to the south, their first confrontation with the British army happened during the battle of Mons. The preliminary phase of this battle was the occasion of the first actions of the RFC. During these operations, the two first British airmen were killed in action between Brussels and Mons. The first of many airmen to fall in Belgium during two world wars.

Civil aviators who enlisted with their own machines supplemented the four original squadrons of the Belgian Air Arm. A fifth squadron was so created with a mix of Deperdussin monocoques, Bleriot XI's and a Morane H. Amongst the volunteers who joined the Army Air component there were many pre-war celebrities as Crombez, Tyck, Olieslagers with his brothers and De Caters.

After the first battles along the Meuse river, the Belgian army slowly retreated to Antwerp. Aerial reconnaissances were mounted every day. Aeroplanes were also used to bomb the advancing Germans troops with iron arrows. Germans considered these attacks as "aerial terrorism", these crude weapons having the reputation to pass trough an horse and his rider to kill both.

After being defeated during the battle of the Marne, the Germans turned their eyes to the sea and besieged Antwerpen where the Belgian Army and its air service had retreated. During the siege of the town, the Belgian Farmans were extensively used to detect Germans artillery positions. French supplied aircraft and personal to reinforce the Belgian air service. Crews by a Belgian and a French were constituted, the first example of a multinational squadron. British send also troops and aeroplanes to help Belgium. Winsten Churchill being first Lord of the Admiralty send RNAS detachment to Oostende and Antwerpen.

The British decided also to mount the first aerial attacks on the zeppelin sheds in Germany (Keulen & Dusseldorf) from Antwerpen on 8 October 1914. The raid was a mitigated success but it was the first strategic bombing of the history.

The superiority of the German artillery leaded the Belgian Army to retreat again along the North Sea cost. A new defence line was established on the Ijser river during the first Battle of the Ijser. The villages and small towns of this region will became world know during the following three years: Ypres, Dixmude, Ploegsteert, Poelkappele .

The Belgian Air Arm retreated with the Army and tried to help as much as much as possible with the aeroplanes still available with air observation in support of the artillery. However the bad weather of the winter season did not help and reduce air activity.

The stabilisation of the front during the last months of 1914 permitted the Air corps to repair and replace existing machines. The French delivered new Bleriots and Farmans. A depot and rear base was established in Calais Beaumarais on the French territory and operational airfields in Houtem & Koksijde (where Seaking helicopters are still based today) on the Belgian soil.

The Air War Escalates 1916-1917

At the start of 1916, the Belgian air force was 6 squadrons strong: 4 for air observation, air photography and bombing, 2 operating as fighter squadrons. With the appearance of increasingly sophisticated Germans fighters, the Belgians received some Nieuport XI & XVII.

During 1916, the belligerents started to attack the observation captive balloons used to direct the artillery. In October, two Belgian balloons were so shot down by German fighters.

In March 1917, the first German Gotha bombers arrived in Gent to form the England Geschwader. The main task of this unit was to bomb Great Britain. 1917 saw also the appearance of the Fokker Dr1 in the German Air Force and the Sopwith Triplane in the RNAS squadrons based in Dunkerke and operating on the Belgian front.

The Belgian observation squadrons were still flying mostly outdated Farmans. Some squadrons were working exclusively for great Army units. The first operational use of radio transmissions between observation aircraft and ground force in the Belgian Air Corps also occurred in 1917.

On 1 may 1917, the future ace, Willy Coppens, took part in his first air combat. He started the war as an infantryman. He transferred to the Air Corps in 1915 and was trained in Hendon (UK) and in Etampes where a Belgian flying school was installed. He joined the front first as an observer pilot flying Sopwith Strutter before to join a fighter squadron.

Another future ace won his first victory on 15 march 1917. Edmond Thieffry will finish the war with 10 victories. He also started the war as an infantryman being a lawyer in the civil life. He joined the Belgian Air Corp in July 1915 in Etampe where he learned to fly.

The period 1916 - 1917 saw the appearance of personal insignias painted on aeroplane for the purpose of easy recognition in flight. Some of the insignias used were comets, thistles, little paper horses and dragons. Some of these personal insignias still survive today as squadron insignias of the modern Belgian Air Force.

In the first months of 1917, Germans Jastas were very active on the Northern France front and in the Ypres sector. Some Belgians aircraft fall victims of the German fighters. The Belgians were also facing fighters from the Marine-Feldjagdstaffel N1 based in Nieuwmunster and operating along the coast.

On 4 May, the crew Henri Crombez - Louis Robin from the 6th Squadron mounted a daring raid to Brussels. They take off at dawn and reached the town to drop a Belgian flag. They came back overflying German airfields in Sint Agatha Berchem and Gontrode.

To better understand the situation on the front, King Albert did not hesitate to fly in a Sopwith Strutter as observer on 6 July 1917. He was surely the only chief of state to have flow over the front during WW1.

July 1917 saw intense air activity above the Flanders frontline with the Belgian Air corps flying an average of 120 sorties by day. Germans installed new airfields in small Flemish villages as Aartrijke, Varsenare, Wijnendale and Snellegem. Observation aircraft were extensively used to watch railway activities, troops movements and artillery moves behind the frontlines to detect premises of ground offensives.

In August 1917, Belgian pilots received their first Hanriot HD1. The small fighter was not in great favour with the French but will prove to be a good acquisition for the Belgian aces especially Willy Coppens who won most of his victories on this single machine gun biplane.

On 15 August 1917, the third battle of Ypres started. Although this sector was defended by Commonwealth troops, the Belgian Army and Air Corps were employed in the fights as the Belgian sector is close to the British sector.

The French ace Georges Guynemer also operated over the Flanders front and was finally shot down near Poelkapelle on 11 September. Another Ace, German this time, was killed on 30 July. Werner Voss credited of 48 victories was shot down near his base in Marke (Kortrijk).

In September, Sopwith Camels were delivered to the Belgians. Jan Olieslagers flew Camels until the end of the war. With the bad season arriving, the frontline returned to a calmer state. However in the sky, the British were still very active seeking confrontations with the Germans by means of offensive patrols over and behind the frontline. They moved some squadrons to airfields in Poperinge, Abele and Proven to be close to the front.

On 23th December 1917, the French squadron C74 who had co-operated with the Belgians since the dark days of 1914 left the Belgian sector to be a full French operated unit.

Final Days of Fury 1918

Beginning in 1918, the British, French and Belgian Headquarters organised themselves to better use air observation and air photography. Each army became responsible of the observation on one sector of the front. The Belgians received the responsibility of the sector at the west of Oostende-Vijfwegen railroads. Co-operation and information exchange in the air was not new but it was the first time it was such organised. Some Belgian crews specialised in air to ground photography as Jaumotte had developed such expertise, British or French HQ asked on many occasions for pictures taken by Jaumotte.

In 1918 the Germans tried for the last time to obtain a decision on the Western front before the American troops could become available in force. In the air the balance was already in favour of the allies before the arrival in mass of the US Air Service with the following figures in June 1918:

  • France: 3857 aircraft

  • Commonwealth: 2630 aircraft

  • USA: 180 aircraft

  • Belgium: 127 aircraft

  • Germany: 2551 aircraft

The most significant fact for the Belgian Air Corps in the first month of 1918 was the establishment of the "Groupe de Chasse Jacquet" (Fighter group Jacquet) in February 1918. Under the command of Commandant Fernand Jacquet who was already an ace himself, the Belgian fighter squadrons were grouped together to offer fighters cover to Army units and observation aircraft, as the French already practised. Fighters patrols were also organised to interdict the presence of German observation aeroplane along the Belgian frontline. The Group flying Camel, Spad VII, Hanriot HD1 and Pup grouped some skilled fighter pilots including Coppens, Olieslagers, Demeulemeester. Thieffry was shot down and taken prisoner on 23rd April. Until then the use of fighter aircraft in the Belgian Air Corps was very empirical. It was fighter squadrons with individuals operating on their own or flying missions on behalf of the Army. Observation squadron sometime had their own fighters to their disposal to protect themselves. This is the case with some Sopwith Pup's detached within observation squadrons.

The group was just established when the Germans started their last offensive of the war on 21 March. The German air service was again present in great number in the sky of Flanders from airfields in Vlissegem, Gontrode, Oostakker en Mariakerhe.

However, the reaction of the Allies was very strong. On the Belgian front, the fighters of RAF conducted offensive patrols and succeed in keeping air superiority. On the ground the situation stayed confuse until May when the German offensive was at last stopped.

After the Allies won the battle on the Somme in August, the Belgians prepared to participate in the offensive in the Flanders. On 28 September at 05:30 local time, Belgian, British and French troops assaulted the German trenches. A few minutes before the start of the offensive, Breguet XIV's and Spad XI's of the observation squadrons took off to support the infantry.

French and Belgian observation squadrons co-operated to offer full advantage of the air support. Some aeroplanes were used to bomb and to machinegun the German positions. Ammunitions and supplies were also dropped from the air to advancing troops. On 14th October, Coppens was heavily wounded in shooting down his 37 victim, another observation balloon. He successfully came back to his base but he lost one of his legs in the adventure.

On 17 October, some pilots of the Groupe Jacquet flying of Spad VII, Spad XIII, Spad XI two-seat landed in Oostende, being the first Belgian army members to enter the town after the four years of German occupation.

The French and British also operated aircraft to support the advancing troops. In November 1918, French Breguet XIV ans Salmson's operated from advanced airstrips along the Leie river. British DH4's, Camels and SE5's conducted daily attacks in the sector Mons-Tournai-Enghien in the last days of the War. Remembrances of these daily missions are not so vivid as the actions of the fighter-bombers after D-Day 1944 but traces can be found in contemporary testimonies. There were still some US squadrons operating in Flanders in November.

When advancing in Belgium, Allies aviators found huge amount of aeronautical material left by retreating troops. Some WW1 aircraft displayed today in Museums all around the war were captured in Belgium. After the war the US Air Corps used Antwerpen until at last 1920 to load into ships German aircraft to the USA. Germans also left airfields still used today as Schaffen near Diest. It seem Kurt Tank, the future designer of the FW190, was working on this airfield. The town of Namur housed a Zeppelin shed build by the Germans. Albert Einstein was one on the engineers in charge of erecting the installation there.

In the minds of the Belgian Army high rank officers, the Belgian army air corps had been a very useful auxiliary force during all the conflict. Their approach of the use of air power was deeply influenced by the French strategy. The tactics use by the Belgian air corps was far different from the tactics used by the RAF. All during the coming years the situation would not change.

Commandant Nelis, one of the first pilots of the Belgian Air Corps, commanded the Calais Beaumarais Depot throughput the war. Aircraft were there maintained and repaired. New aircraft were also delivered in this place. In the last months of the war, Nellis started thinking about the developments of Aviation in Belgium after the War but this is another story. One of the assistant of Nellis in Callais was the great father of another member of the BAHA.