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
WW1 aircraft engines

Air Assessment: The German 1918 Spring Offensive

By Raul Colon
October 12th, 2008

After more than three years of bloody fighting, The German High Command came up with a plan aimed at ending the crippling stalemate on the dreaded Western Front. Planning for Germany’s much vaunted 1918 Spring Offensive was well underway when the human carnage known as The Third Battle of Ypres ended in November 1917. The Battle, another senseless encounter where neither side were able to grab a decisive advantage, had the effect of pushing German leaders into an strategy which was tactically sound but strategically deficient. In the end, the “German Spring Offensive” of 1918, failed miserably hastening with it the fall of Imperial Germany. More than ninety years after, the Offensive still exerts a continuing fascination for those interested in the history of great battles. To date historians have concentrated on describing the Offensive from an almost exclusively ground prospective, thus ignoring one of the most important components of the effort: the air aspect. Following 3rd Ypres, a relative lull in air activity descended on the whole Western Front as each: the French, British and Germans commenced preparations for the next phase of the war. For the Germans, the path to victory was narrowing by the day. Meanwhile, for the Western Allies, victory was near. Time was the issue. Time and the arrival of the fresh American combat divisions.

On July 1917, Germany’s Imperial Air Service established the concept of Jagdgeschwader (JG) which literally means “Hunting Wings” under the direction of the world’s most famous combat ace, Manfred von Richthofen. The introduction and eventual success of such a radical formation was another proof of Richthofen’s mastery of strategic warfare. As more and more German aircraft became operational, more Jagdgeschwader were formed. On February 1918 JG-2 and JG-3 were created. Both “wings” were manned by Jastas. JG-2 was composed of Jastas 12, 13, 15 and 19; while JG-3 utilized Jastas 2, 26, 27 and 36. Jastas was the name assigned to one of the most venerable aircraft ever to take to the air: the amazing Fokker Dr.I.

The Dr.I triplane was the staple of the powerful German Air Force during the later stages of the war. Introduced to operational services on October 1917, the famous rotary engined triplane was a extremely manoeuvrable combat platform in the hands of an experienced pilot. Although glorified through history, the reality was that the Dr.I was obsolete almost before it entered the front lines. Its overall service career was marked by an endless string of mechanical failures and accidents, and the fact that they were increasingly becoming easy pray for the newest Allied “pursuit” or fighter airplanes just arriving in France. Nevertheless, in the hands of such aces as Richthofen and Werner Voss, the Dr.I proved to be a dangerous adversary. Unfortunately for the Germans, by the end of 1917, the small number of Dr.Is built, just 320 units, and the attrition rate suffered  were forcing the Germans to look for new options.

Armed with potent fighters, both JG formations would be instrumental to Germany’s strategy that spring. JG-2 was over the overall command of Rudolf Berthold, while JG-3 felt into the lap of the well respected Bruno Loerer. At the same time the Jagdgeschwader were becoming operational, a new, more flexible formation was being assembled. Consisting of no more than up to three Jastas, the Jagdgruppe was a flight envelop designed and formed only on the tactical level.

In short, the Jagdgruppe was a transit unit formed to accomplish a dedicated task during an engagement. From January to November 1918, twelve of these tactical attack units were assembled (Number 1 through 12). At the same time the new formations were beginning to take shape in November 1917, when the German government promptly began to search for a new and improved fighter aircraft to relieve the Dr.I.

One that could take on the best Allied fighter.

Air trials were held on January of the following year with the Fokker D VII as the undisputed winner. The D VII was, without question, the best developed fighter of World War I. The concept of the VII was simple enough. In order to recapture the air supremacy Germany once enjoyed, the Air Service needed to be outfitted with the most powerful fighter available. The VII met and surpassed these lofty expectations. The German High Command was so impressed with the new deign that they placed an immediate order for four hundred units. At the time, the order was Fokker’s largest single venture, easily eclipsing the previous record held by the construction of sixty Dr.Is. The company went on to manufacture almost one thousand VIIs before the Armistice, an impressive figure at the time. Unfortunately for Germany, the aircraft had not arrived in sufficient quantity when the great offensive of March 1918 commenced. The other German Jastas, eighty of them, were equipped with Albatross D Vs, Vas, Pfalz D IIIs and D IIIas, plus the beforementioned Dr.I. In all, Germany was able to field 2047 operational aircraft on the Western Front. Of that number, 1680 units were deployed on the British-held sector of the front.

On the other side of the dreaded trenches, Great Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and the French Air Force were rapidly building up their respective air assets with Camels, Royal Aircraft Factory’s SE.5as and Bristol Fighters. The Sopwith Camel was one of the War’s biggest success stories. Although it possessed several destructive tendencies, in the hands of an skilled pilot it was one of the deadliest killing platforms of the conflict.

Sopwith Camel Replica

There were several versions of this venerable fighter but the most prolific unit develop was the F.1. A total of 5490 Sopwith Camels were eventually produced. Many of them would find themselves on the air inventories of some foreign air forces after the war ended. Is estimated that nearly 3000 enemy aircraft were downed by Camels, more than any other airplane during the four bloody years of the war. The Camel was also known for being flown off the aircraft carriers HMS Furious and Pegasus. A few 2F.1 version were fitted with a rail mechanism that enabled it to be catapulted from platforms erected on the gun turrets and forecastles of battle cruisers, heavy destroyers and/or battleships.

The other main weapon on the Allied air arsenal was the RAF SE.5. The SE.5 first entered frontline service in the spring of 1917. Although less manoeuvrable than the French-design Nieuports and Spads, the SE.5 was faster and possessed a higher climb rate.

The next version of the SE.5, the a-type was fitted with the more powerful powerplant, the Hispano-Suize 200 hp engine It entered service in June of that year. But delivery of this version was slowed by the lack of available engines. When the war ended, over 2700 SE.5s were in the inventories of England, the United States and Australia.

The others fighters available to the Allies were the Bristol family of airplanes, specially the F.2B.

The F.2B made its operational debuted during Allied spring offensive of 1917. Total aircraft production reached 5308 units with the last operational F.2 fighter finally retired from active duty in 1932. By March there were in France nine squadrons utilizing Camels (151 units), ten operating SE.5 (163) and six with Bristols (79). Nine more squadrons were operating Spads, S.XIII, Nieuport 17s and 27s (130). These were the units that would bear the brunt of the German might above the British section. By late February, these units were augmented by elements of several French escadrilles.

The much anticipated German offensive commenced in earnest on March 21st. Days before the ground attack began, the air war above the front was already brutal. German pilots were feverishly trying to fend off Allied reconnaissance airplanes attempting to gather information on Germany’s powerful V Corps. During the wee hours of the morning, the big German guns opened fire pounding British positions all along their sector. At the same time, Camels from No. 46 Squadron began bombarding German gun emplacements positions north of Bourlon Wood. Meanwhile, No. 3 Squadron was providing close air support to the first Allied ground infiltration operations. Some elements of the No. 54 Squadron, which was assigned the task of escorting Allied reconnaissance platforms, detached formation and began strafing enemy infantry units backing up the guns at Bourlon Wood in an effort to slow down the bombardment. The next day found Camels from No. 73 and 80 Squadrons engaging the Germans, this time in the air, shooting down six enemy fighters in the process. The next two days were relatively quiet in the skies above the British lines.

But the calm did not last. On March 24th, a day that forever will be enshrined on the history books, Captain J.L. Trollope of No. 43 Squadron set a new aerial record, downing six airplanes in a twenty four hour period. A feat equalled on April 12th, above the same melted ground, by another member of No. 43, Captain H.W. Woollet. But maybe the greatest feat of the air war or at least the most talked about it happened nine days later when an obscure Canadian Captain, A.R. Brown of No. 209 Squadron, flying a Camel shot down a Fokker Dr.I near Corbie. At the controls of the Dr.I triplane was the most famous air ace of all time, Manfred von Richthofen.

Back to the ground, by early April the British High Command became aware of the massiveness of the German effort. Soon, they were sending eight more fighter/scout squadrons under the banner of the recently created Royal Air Force (RAF). The United States also rushed elements of several squadrons to aid the overstretched British. Unfortunately for the Allies, the Americans were just entering the conflict and were not ready for combat operations yet. This left France as the sole partner of the British in the air war.

On its assigned sector of the front, the Aeronautique Militaire was facing a force of 367 German fighter and/or scout planes on 18 Jastas. Despite being out numbered nearly two to one, the French were able to deny, at least most of the time, unrestricted access of its airspace to the Germans. It was in this sector that one of the greatest French aces began an incredible run. On May 9th, a French pilot named Renée Fonk destroyed six German aircraft, three in an amazing forty five second span. Fonk would go on to down seventy five enemy airplanes before the end of the war. These were the days of massive aircraft formations. On any given day, more than one hundred aircraft would be in the air at the same time. These large formations were sighted at long range enabling the other side to deploy its own assets and meet then incoming enemy in strength, thus paving the way for pilots to rack up those impressive kill ratios.

On June 14th, after months of fighting and grinding, the Germans called off their offensive effort. It seemed clear that the Germans were unable to break through the Allied lines. Fatigue and disease were depleting the Germans' ranks at an alarming rate. Add to this the fact that the American combat divisions were beginning to arrive in France in ever increasing numbers; an equation that spelled trouble for the now over-extended Germans. The spring offensive of 1918 would be the last major attempt by Imperial Germany to achieve victory. The air component of the fighting, although seldom mentioned, is one filled with remarkable accomplishments and sacrifices. Accomplishments that would place for ever, a human stamp on the often faceless aerial combat actions during The Great War.

The Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, Robert Jackson, Parragon Publishing 2002
The First World War, Hew Strachan, Penguin Books 2003
Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books 2004
The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare, Editor Chris Bishop, Amber Books 2001
The German Army on the Somme 1914-1916, Jack Sheldon, Pen & Sword Books 2005