from ‘The War Illustrated’, 30th January, 1915
'Triumph of the Aeroplane in the War'

by Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper


the Future of Aerial Warfare

early artists conceptions of aerial warfare


Military aeroplanes were, at the outbreak of the present war, efficient in two only of the five uses for which they are destined in future warfare. They were able, firstly, to act as scouts; and, secondly, to direct the fire of artillery; but there were no fighting, armoured aeroplanes worthy of the name, and no machines suitable for attacking successfully a strongly-fortified position, nor were there aircraft capable of the rapid transport of troops. From the point of view of a perfected aeroplane — of machines which should carry out all these tasks — the war has come five years too soon.

The scouting aeroplane, on which designers have concentrated, their attention, is the most practical of flying craft. It has braved wind and fog, rain, and even snow, and has run the gauntlet of hostile gun fire. From the severest test, under most arduous conditions, it has emerged triumphant. It is possible for an aviator, using a high-speed machine, to reach an enemy's position that is three days' march away, observe the disposition of his forces, and then return to headquarters — all within a space of three hours. More than once, when rapidity in scouting has been essential, the aeroplane has done work of supreme importance.


from a German magazine : air reconnaisance


The Aeroplane's Immense Value in Reconnaissance

The best instance occurred at Mons. Sir John French, hearing from General Joffre on the evening of August 23rd that the British position was threatened by three German army corps on its front, with another seeking to turn its flank, needed to confirm this news before dark, so that he might .decide what should be done next day at dawn. Considerable distances had to be traversed in such a reconnaissance, and only an hour or so of daylight remained. No other instrument of war could, in the time, have done what the British aircraft- did. A number of them flew out, each following a specified route, and in an hour, thanks to their speed and to the fact that no land obstructions caused them deviation or delay, they had collected news which it might have taken cavalry scouts a day to glean. The enemy were seen, their strength estimated ; "the fog of war" was pierced and swept aside. And that night, in his headquarters, making ready for the coming day, Sir John French was able to plan our fighting retreat.

Aircraft enable a commander-in-chief to see, as Wellington always longed to see, what is occurring "on the other side of the hill." War ceases to be haphazard, with those who control it making fumbling moves, vaguely aware only of what an adversary is doing. As Major-General Henderson has said : "Throughout a campaign, where both sides are sufficiently equipped with aircraft, the game must be played with the cards on the table." Secrecy in operations, the striking of an unseen blow, becomes enormously difficult now there are these scouts in the air. And for this reason, as the war has shown, the use of aircraft has had a marked influence on strategy. They have rendered extraordinarily important the factors of time and distance. A commander-in-chief, if he hopes for success, must try to adapt the tactics of Napoleon, the originator of modern war, to these new conditions that prevail. He must aim at his enemy so swift and powerful a blow, at a point where this enemy's line is weakest, and least able to call up support, that even if the stroke is seen by the air scouts before it is struck, it possesses such rapidity, such irresistible force, that it will succeed in the face of detection.

Mathematics for Anti-Aircraft Gunners

Anti-aircraft artillery, semi-automatic in Its action and throwing shells to a height greater than that at which an aviator will fly if he is to do practical work as a scout, has been used vigorously against the aeroplane. But the latter thanks to its speed and manoeuvring power and to the small target it offers, has rarely been hit, and its work is impeded by gun fire to no serious extent. One of the fastest, single-seated scouts, when at its highest speed, will travel more than one hundred and seventy feet in a second; and as a shell may take two or three seconds to rise to the altitude at which a machine is flying, this means that, between the moment at which the gun is fired and the bursting of the shell at the height for which it is timed, the aeroplane that is the target may have travelled several hundred feet. This entails for the gunner an intricate calculation in which, basing his aim on an estimate of the speed of the aircraft, he points his weapon at the moment of discharge at some point in the air which may be eight or ten lengths in advance of the machine. And there is, in addition to calculating the speed of the aeroplane, the difficulty of estimating its height, which will change constantly as the pilot manoeuvres his machine. It is not surprising, therefore, that while many aircraft run this gauntlet of fire, few are brought to the ground. Aeroplane as Range-finder for Artillery

In directing long-range artillery, which may be bombarding some position its gunners cannot see, the aeroplane has succeeded beyond all hope. A pilot ascends, watched by the officers of the battery with which he is co-operating. He flies over the enemy, observing their positions. When he sees concealed trenches or hidden guns, which it would be impossible to detect save from his bird's-eye view, he drops a smoke-bomb, which marks the spot, whereupon the officers who are watching his flight, working out the range by means of a telemeter or some other sighting instrument, proceed to drop their shells just over the area that has been indicated. In one instance, which shows the accuracy that can be obtained, an aviator was passing above a village in the enemy's territory when he observed in this garden of a lonely cottage a gathering of figures, which, having regard to the military motor-cars he saw drawn up near by, suggested to him that this might be a meeting of the Headquarters Staff. Such, indeed, it was. The airman dropped his marking bomb. It was seen through their field-glasses by the artillery officers for whom he was range-finding, and who were lying among some bushes on a hill-top, three miles away. Of course they could not see what the airman saw. They had to take it for granted that what he had observed below was worth expending ammunition upon. The range was worked out, and one of the guns which was standing on the hillside just below them, shielded by a screen of bushes, was trained so as to throw a shell at this target that was invisible. The gun roared, and the shell sped away with a whine that rose quickly to a shriek.


dropping aerial flechettes from an aeroplane


Accurate Aim at Unseen Target

Those in the garden of the cottage heard the shell coming towards them, rending the air with its harsh, grim note. It took them by surprise, because no bombardment was in progress in this corner of the battlefield. But there was no time to move to safety ; there was, in fact, no shelter for which to run. The frail cottage, were it struck, would prove a death-trap. So the generals and their staff stood silent by the map-strewn table, waiting the arrival of this messenger of death. The shell swept down- at them, struck, and burst ; the earth splashed up in a fountain, and there arose an inky, sluggish cloud of smoke. But instead of landing in the garden, as it should have done, the shell dropped twenty- five yards too short. It tore a gap through the garden hedge, and dug a pit on the other side, besides covering the officers and their maps with a fine spray of mould. But for this trifling error of yards they were devoutly thankful; it was just enough to save their lives. Such shooting is wonderful, none the less. Remember that the gunners who fired could obtain no glimpse of their target. Yet at a distance of three miles, and at their first shot, they were so near their unseen target that they sprinkled it with earth by the bursting of their shell.

Of fighting aeroplanes, when the war began, there were a few craft which had been fitted with machine-guns; but these were experimental and slow-flying, and had technical defects. Yet there was aerial fighting, none the less. British and French aviators, triumphing over the limitations of their craft, attacked the German airmen with rifles and revolvers, making up in personal gallantry what they lacked in armament. Apart from the skill required to bring an adversary to combat in the air and impose your tactics on his, the courage of the airman needs to be exceptional. His machine, as ho steers for his foe, is moving through the air at a very high speed ; and to handle this craft, apart from any question of manoeuvring for a conflict, requires much dexterity.


a two-seater with mounted machine-gun


Rapid Manoeuvring and Aerial Conflict

The evolutions of two machines as they draw together in combat are so rapid that an observer from the ground can scarcely follow them. The positions of the antagonists change constantly in regard to each other. A pilot is above his enemy's head one moment, then suddenly he may dive below him, and the next instant, by a turn at a critical moment, he may avoid a conflict and dart away. The difficulty of accurate firing is extreme. From a machine passing through the air at eighty or a hundred miles an hour the marksman has to aim at another craft which is also in rapid flight, and follows no given course or altitude, but is altering its position ceaselessly both as regards elevation and range. And in the airman's brain, though it may be sub-conscious, lies the thought that a shot from his enemy, if it strikes him or hits a vital part of his machine, may send him earthward in a fall which spells death, and from which there is no escape.

The bold tactics of the allied airmen, who forced a combat whenever possible, had a distinctly weakening effect oil the German initiative. But, remembering this, and granting also the use', as the war progressed, of a more perfect type of gun-carrying craft, there was no chance" of so interfering with the enemy that he lost the services of his flying scouts. It is the keynote of aerial strategy that, immediately war is declared, you should seek to bring your foe to combat, and so cripple him that, in subsequent stages of the campaign, his flying scouts may be beaten back when they, attempt to penetrate your lines and observe your dispositions. In this way, while blindfolding your enemy, you are still able to see yourself. Your adversary will fight, so to say, in twilight, while you are in the light of day. But in this campaign, owing to a lack of machines, and through the inadequacy of weapons, none of the contending air corps have been able to inflict a crushing blow, and the - result has been that both by the Germans and the Allies a constant use of aircraft has been possible.

Human Element and the Mechanical

Surprising results have been obtained during the war by the use of aeroplanes in destructive raids. Airship stations-have been attacked with conspicuous success ; they offer large and vulnerable targets. Ammunition and supply depots have also been raided with effect; while in attacks on troops in bivouac, or on the march, which should be judged more by their demoralising influence than by the actual damage done, airmen have harassed the enemy and prevented them from resting, even when in camps behind the battle-front. But here again the triumph of the air corps has been more human than mechanical. By flying low and risking their lives every second, as did our naval airmen at Dusseldorf and Cuxhaven, the bomb-droppers have managed to hit the targets at which they aimed. Only in this way — by descending deliberately into the danger-zone, and-launching their missiles from heights of a few hundred feet — could they have overcome the difficulties that exist in dropping bombs with accuracy from an aeroplane in flight.

But the aerial history of the war, when it is written, will show that it is as scouts and as range-finders for artillery that the flying corps have done .their really vital work.


left : aerial combat on the cover of a German children's magazine
right : dead-reackoning bombing


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