Early Air-to-Air Combat Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Early Air-to-Air Combat

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A WWII plane in combat

The first aeroplanes were not built for war. The Wright brothers made their first powered flight late in 1903, but by 1909 the technology had advanced sufficiently for the Frenchman Louis Blériot to fly some 22 miles across the English Channel. This won him the £1,000 promised by the London Daily Mail for doing so. He nearly didn't make it.


The British Army had already conquered the air, however. From 1880 they were using balloons to locate and target enemy troops for artillery, as the Prussians had done in the siege of Paris in 1871. This service was delivered by the Balloon Section, Royal Engineers (RE).

In 1911 the Air Battalion, RE, had two Companies. No 1 had airships, balloons and kites, while No 2 had aircraft. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was founded in 1912 from these two Companies. Just before the outbreak of war the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) took over the airships, leaving the RFC with the aircraft. The RNAS also formed aircraft squadrons in September 1914.

The Technology

The aircraft of 1914 were not intended as fighters. The job for some, unlike their balloon predecessors, was to 'scout' for the enemy, a job traditionally given in the past to the cavalry. Aircraft were not limited by difficulties of terrain, and had a superior vantage point. At this stage they complemented the role of the cavalry. Most British single-seater aeroplanes were called scouts for most of the First World War. Once the target was located, two-seater aircraft maintained the contact, with the passenger or observer passing firing correction instructions back to the artillery, superseding but not replacing the balloon. They were ideal for a campaign of manoeuvre.

The problem with most of these aircraft was that they were under-powered and under-developed, which meant that they had problems lifting any sort of weight or payload - including the pilot! Their rate of climb was lamentable, and their loiter time (the length of time an aircraft can stay in an operational area once airborne) limited. The two-seaters in particular were designed for stability, to allow ground observation. The standard RFC aircraft in 1914, the BE 2, was so stable that it could not be manoeuvred quickly at all, and later proved to be the airborne equivalent of a 'sitting duck'.

At the outbreak of the First World War, strengths were as follows:

  • France had 132 front-line aircraft and 15 non-rigid airships

  • Germany had 246 aircraft and five Zeppelin airships

  • The RFC had 84 aircraft

  • The RNAS had 71 aircraft and seven airships

The other major forces - Russia and Austria - were poorly equipped at this time.
  • The Russians had some 24 aircraft and 12 airships

  • The Austrians had 36 aircraft and one airship

In the first few weeks of World War I there was still no desire to fight in the air. Opponents waved chivalrously at each other in passing. Just being airborne was dangerous enough - but it would soon become more so.

The Shooting Starts

It may have started with a shaking of fists, but soon opposing airmen started to devise ways of limiting the enemy's activities. Due to weight restrictions only pistols, rifles and shotguns were used initially, with little effect, although there were stories about airmen (RJF Barton of the RFC and Felix Brocord of the French Air Service) shooting down German aircraft with pistols. Other offensive projectiles at this time included bricks, flechettes (heavy steel darts), hand grenades, and grappling hooks.

Since there was no way of preventing your machine gun or any other weapon from shooting your propeller off, tractor aircraft (propeller in front) could fire only to the side and behind. Pusher aircraft (propeller behind) could fire forward, but not to the rear. Early machine guns were too heavy to be carried in the smaller aircraft, so it was left to the large, lumbering, pusher planes to carry the heavy machine guns.

  • On 22 August, 1914, Lt Louis A Strange and his observer, Lt L Penn-Gaskell, with an infantry type Lewis gun mounted in a Henri Farman pusher, chased a German reconnaissance aircraft but could not come within range. The order was given for the gun to be removed.

  • On the same day, German rifle fire brought down an Avro 504 on patrol over Belgium, which made it the first RFC aeroplane to be destroyed by the enemy.

  • As if in reply, a German two-seater aircraft was forced down on 25 August after a confrontation with three unarmed aircraft of No 2 Squadron RFC. This was the first German casualty.

  • On the Eastern Front in August 1914, Staff-Captain Pyotr Nesterov of the Imperial Russian Air Service was the first military pilot in the world to ram a hostile reconnaissance plane.

A Deadlier Game

On 5 October, 1914, the first aeroplane in the world to be shot down from another aeroplane was a German two-seater Aviatik, piloted by Feldwebel Wilhelm Schlichting, with Lieutnant Fritz von Zangen as his observer.

It was brought down over Rheims, France. Sergeant Joseph Frantz (pilot) and Caporal Louis Quénault (observer) of the French Air Service were returning from a mission in a Voisin Type 3 (pusher), when they spotted and fired on the German aircraft. Quénault's Hotchkiss machine gun fired about 48 rounds (two clips) before the gun jammed. At this point von Zangen, the German observer, fired at them with his rifle. Quénault returned fire with his carbine, hitting the pilot. The plane, out of control, crashed to the earth and was destroyed.

This was witnessed by French troops on the ground, and thus became the first confirmed air-to-air combat victory.

Crew Conditions

Before continuing, it is as well to describe the crew conditions and equipment. By the end of 1914 most two-seaters carried a machine gun for rearward defence. The Allies usually carried a Lewis gun, and the Germans a Parabellum (a lighter redesign of the Maxim).

The normal safety harness was a simple leather lap strap, which the observer had to undo if he was to man the machine gun. There are many tales of aircraft rolling over and the observer being seen to fall to his death from the rear cockpit (or front, in the case of the BE 2).

There were no parachutes issued to aircrew: they were reserved for the crews of the observation balloons, which began to be used as the front became more static. Many aircrew refused them as they were seen to be 'unmanly', but it was mainly the weight of the early parachutes that prevented their widespread use.

To shoot at an aircraft would almost certainly result in the death of the crew from gunfire or crashing. The chivalry wasn't exactly dead, but it certainly became difficult to see. By the spring of 1915 the air war had grown more deadly.

The scout aircraft were the most vulnerable as, with only one crew member, the pilot not only had to fly the aircraft, he had to fire the weaponry as well. Since this could not be fired forward, it had to be fired around the propeller arc. Difficult? That may be, but there were those who did achieve notable success.

On the 25 July, 1915, Major Lanoe G Hawker of 6 Squadron RFC was flying a Bristol Scout C biplane, armed only with a bolt-action rifle. This was a Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE), the standard infantry rifle, mounted beside the cockpit at an angle to fire clear of the propeller arc. He attacked three enemy two-seater scouts in three separate actions during a single sortie. For this action he was awarded the Victoria Cross (the highest and most prestigious British award for bravery in battle) on 24 August.

For most conspicuous bravery and very great ability on 25 July 1915. When flying alone he attacked three enemy aeroplanes in succession. The first managed eventually to escape, the second was driven to the ground damaged, and the third, which he attacked at the height of about 10,000 feet, was driven to earth in our lines, the pilot and observer being killed. The personal bravery shown by this officer was of the very highest order, as the enemy's aircraft were armed with machine guns and all carried a passenger as well as a pilot.
- London Gazette
, 24 August, 1915.

Technology Advances

The first forward-firing machine gun in a tractor aircraft was fitted to a Moraine Saulnier Scout of the French Air Service, flown by Roland Garros. To avoid the obvious problem with bullets and propeller blades he had steel wedges fitted, which deflected the bullets. This gave him a tremendous advantage over the opposition, who had thought they would be safe if a scout came directly at them.

After shooting down five enemy aircraft, he was forced down due to damage caused by ground fire. The Germans captured him and found the technology on his aircraft. The secret was out.

Anthony Fokker, an enterprising Hollander who built aircraft for the German Air service (the Netherlands were neutral), inspected it, but decided he could do better. He used cams, in line with the propeller blades, on the crankshaft of the engine. These operated a linkage with the machine gun's firing mechanism and stopped it firing as the blade passed in front of the barrel. This is termed 'interrupter gear'.

To avoid weight problems, he used a lightweight version of the Maxim MG07, the MG07/15, which had an air-cooled (not water-cooled) barrel. This became the standard German fighter gun of the First World War. He built this into a nimble monoplane, the E1 (E for Eindecker, monoplane) and offered it to the German Army. It was eagerly adopted.

At first it was used as protection for spotters, but in the hands of pilots such as Ernst Boelcke and Max Immelmann1, who patrolled the skies looking for spotters to shoot down, it was a killer.

So began the 'Fokker Scourge' of the Autumn of 1915, when Allied aircraft dropped from the sky with monotonous regularity. The BE 2, with the defensive armament in the front, firing backwards under the top wing, was, as mentioned earlier, an easy target – 'Fokker Fodder', as it became known. The Fokker E1 can be considered the first fighter aircraft.

The End of the Beginning

After using agile pusher aircraft such as the Airco DH2 with forward-firing guns, the Allies used another version of interrupter gear like that used by Fokker, and almost universally used the air-cooled version of the British Army's Vickers machine gun. As engines grew more powerful and aerodynamics more refined, heavier armament could be carried, usually two MGs with more ammunition.

Aircraft also became more agile, presenting a more difficult target. So began the 'dog fight' - aircraft turning, rolling, looping and stalling to shake off an attacker, and the attacking aircraft following these manoeuvres to gain a good shooting position. Thus also began the long run of the fighter aircraft and 'Aces' – fighter pilots who shot down others. Most did not survive the war, and many that did laid the foundations for a repeat performance in more modern machines from the Spanish Civil War to the Pacific Ocean (1936 to 1945).

1The Immelmann turn, a half loop followed by a half roll, was not Immelmann's tactic. He preferred a steep climb with a flat 'rudder' turn of 180°. Some think it was an Allied manoeuvre to avoid Immelmann!

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