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the end of the German air offensive on the Western Front

January 25th 2009
Raul Colon

In the wake of the Germans ineffective and disastrous Spring Offensive of March-June 1918, most of the Allied commanders and even their political leaders, believed that Germany was a defeated country. Its Army has just suffered a massive defeat. A defeat that would certainly mean the end of Germany as a coherent state. But if this was the case in June 1918, the situation in the air did not match the one in the ground. After the June offensive, many German Jastas (squadrons) operating on the Western Front were removed from the frontline to rear areas for re-fitting and rearmament purposes.

New aircraft types such as the impressive Fokker D VII were assigned to those refitted units in greater numbers than earlier. In fact, by the end of June 1918, more than 270 D VII were distributed among the frontline Jastas. In an ironic twist of fate, by the time of the great German ace Manfred von Richthofen’s death on April 21st JG-1 was in the process of assimilating their first D VII units. The timeline coincided, more or less, with the arrival of the first American scout units over the ravaged ground of the Western Front. The first American operational squadron actually arrived on February. Assigned to the Villeneuve sector, they carried out their first combat sortie on the March 15th when Raoul Lufbery led an unarmed squadron of Nieuport XXVIIIs over the dreaded front. Later on their tour of France, the Americans traded their Nieuports for the more agile SPAD S.XIII. Although the Americans entered the conflict in its later stages, their pilots displayed a flair for the dramatic very characteristic of their counterparts in the ground. Led by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker (26 confirmed victories) and Lieutenant Frank Luke (21) the Americans began racking up an impressive victory total during the summer and autumn of 1918 confirming their status as one of the more successful flying groups of the time.

Back at the front, on August 18th Great Britain launched its massive offensive along the Flanders section. The “Big Push” as the operation was referred to, was supplemented by thirteen squadrons of S.E.5as, seventeen equipped with Sopwith Camels, six with Bristols, fourteen with R.E.8s, four with the newly introduced Sopwith Dolphins, four with F.K.8s, five with D.H.4s, fourteen composed of the D.H. 9/9A platform, seven with F.E. 2b/d and seven additional units armed with the O/400 heavy bomber. In all, the British commenced their offensive with over 1,700 available aircraft assigned to 91 squadrons.

Meanwhile, on July 18th, the French launched their massive counterattack on its section of the front. During the early days of 1918, the Aeronautique Militaire underwent a total makeover that included the much talked about unit standardization among its escadrilles. By mid June, most of the French forward deployed escadrilles were fitted with the SPAD XIII scout pursuit planes. Forty nine escadrilles, augmented by another ten reserve units were available for the “push east”. In addition, the French possessed twenty three dedicated bomber escadrilles flying the excellent Breguet 14, the Caproni 10 and the underrated Voisin 10. One hundred and forty additional units were available for action. Those supplemental escadrilles came from the French Army and its Navy counterpart. The total number of aircraft available at the front dwarfed anything the Germans could deploy on that sector. Over 2,800 units were operational by the summer. The number would increase to 3,225 units by the time hostilities ceased. With such an overwhelming advantage, the Allies were able to achieve and maintain air superiority over the whole front from June onward.

On the other side of the lines, the Germans did not sit idle while her enemies regrouped. In the summer, Germany created a fourth Jagdgeschwader, JG-2, under the command of a veteran Bavarian fighter pilot, Ritter Eduard von Schleich. The Pour le Merite winner (1917) brought in an organizational structure sorely needed by Germany’s air force. Schleich implemented new formations and introduced new tactics that, for a time at least, gave Germany a fighting chance in the air. His JG-2 was able to inflict heavy losses to their enemies on limited actions. One example of it was the American Metz offensive of September 20th. In action over the small French town, JG-2’s pilots downed eighty nine American airplanes in just two days. Unfortunately for Germany, these types of accomplishments were unusual rather than the norm it use to be.

By September, the Royal Air Force was in the early stages of receiving the first units of the much anticipated Sopwith Snipe dedicated fighter. The advanced Snipe design was to prove so successful that the RAF utilized it in the colonies for up to twenty years after the war. Although ordered in great numbers and its delivery hastened by RAF commanders, the Snipe came too late into the conflict to directly affect the outcome. Nevertheless, the Snipe monoplane did leave an impression on the war. On October 27th, Major WG Baker, a pilot attached to the RCF’s No. 201 squadron, flying patrol patterns over the Forte de Mormal, encountered seventeen enemy airplanes. Rather than turn back his monoplane, young Baker engaged the Germans and was able to down four (confirmed) aircraft, including three Fokker D VIIs; before he was forced to land on the British side of the dreaded trenches. For his actions that afternoon, the British awarded Baker the prestigious Victoria Cross.

On the German side, like the British Snipe, they did not get their “next generation” pursuit aircraft, the Fokker D VIII until very late in the war. This was the aircraft the Germans pitted their air fortunes on. Faster than the Snipe (aprox. 10 miles faster by some accounts) and lighter at the controls, there’s little question than the new German parasol monoplane would have done more than just hold its own against anything the Allies could put in the air. But time ran out for Germany. Internal strife, critical food and fuel shortages, coupled with the Allied penetration of their last major defensive line (Hindenburg) in October; forced Germany to the armistice table. In the end, not even the valiant German air force filled with one of the best aircraft ever designed, the “in erster Linie alle apparete” as the Fokker D VII was known to the French, could change the number situation.

The First World War, Hew Strachan, Penguin Books 2004

The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany, Robin Neillands, Overlook Press 2001

Air Power: The men, machines, and ideas that revolutionized war, from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books 2004