What impact did the First World War have on aircraft and aerial warfare?

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Use these sources to explore the impact of the First World War on aircraft and aerial warfare.

 

1. What role did aircraft play at the outbreak of war?

  • B.E.2. biplane

    B.E.2. biplane
    Q 66016

    At the start of the First World War, aircraft like the B.E.2 were primarily used for reconnaissance. Due to the static nature of trench warfare, aircraft were the only means of gathering information beyond enemy trenches, so they  were essential for discovering  where the enemy was based and  what they were doing.

  • Message Streamer

    Message Streamer
    FLA 394

    These early aircraft were not fitted with radio sets, but messages about enemy troop movements needed to be communicated quickly.  Pilots could either drop messages in weighted bags or use message streamers to drop messages to forces on the ground.  This message streamer was dropped on 9 September 1914 during the Battle of the Marne.

  • Reconnaissance Cameras

    Reconnaissance Cameras
    Reconnaissance Cameras
    PHO 26

    As trench systems developed and became more complex, it became harder for pilots to accurately record what was happening on the ground and formal  aerial photography was introduced early in 1915. The first experimental photographs were taken by hand, but aerial reconnaissance was most effective when using cameras which were attached to the aircraft, like this C Type camera.

  • Aerial Photographs

    Aerial Photographs
    Aerial Photographs
    Q 8533

    Aerial reconnaissance was a dangerous job. Taking photos of enemy positions required the pilot to fly straight and level so that the observer could take a series of overlapping images.  This made them an easy target. Here we can see a series of overlapping images being turned into a larger map of the German lines near Arras in February 1918.

2. How did air-to-air combat develop?

  • Projectiles

    Projectiles
    AIR 232

    At first most aircraft were unarmed, although some pilots did carry weapons with them including pistols and grenades. These were of limited use, however, as the body of the aircraft itself made it difficult and dangerous to fire any weapons. At the same time crude attacks were made on troops on the ground. Darts like these and other dangerous objects were used by both sides.  They were usually dropped in bundles from aeroplanes, as this method ensured a wide dispersal.

  • A model of the Fokker Eindecker

    A model of the Fokker Eindecker
    A model of the Fokker Eindecker
    MOD 349

    As the importance of aerial observation grew, both sides developed tactics to try and shoot down enemy aircraft and to protect their own. By 1915, forward-firing machine guns were being fitted onto aircraft, but the real breakthrough came with the invention of an interrupter mechanism which allowed machine guns to fire through moving propeller blades.  The first one was fitted  to the Fokker Eindekker, like this model.

  • Air-to-air combat

    Air-to-air combat
    Air-to-air combat
    Art.IWM ART 3071

    Throughout 1916 and 1917 aerial warfare developed from lone fighting to ever larger formations of aircraft and patrols.  Patrol leaders would try to give themselves an element of surprise by positioning themselves above the enemy before attacking.  At this point the formations would break up into individual dog fights. 'Air aces' were celebrated as heroes and used for propaganda by their governments.

3. How much training did airmen receive?

  • Insufficient preparation

    Insufficient preparation
    HU 94502

    Some men had only a few hours of training before being sent on active missions due to an ever increasing demand for pilots.  As a result, the length of basic training was minimal so it was important that their instruction was easy to understand. This short training led to heavy losses, as inexperience in the air often proved fatal.

  • Popular post

    Popular post
    Art.IWM PST 5277

    Many saw being a pilot as a glamorous role, which would take them away from the front lines.   Aviation attracted young, energetic recruits who were keen to be trained in this new way of warfare.  As aircraft became more sophisticated they were  seen as the cutting edge of new technology .  Air to air combat developed as stability gave way to manoeuvrability and aircraft became more challenging to fly.

4. What type of people were pilots during the First World War?

  • The Red Baron

    The Red Baron
    Q 67780

    Manfred von Richthofen was born into an aristocratic Prussian family in 1892. After serving in the German Army on the Western Front, he transferred to the air service in May 1915.  He became the highest-scoring ace of the war with 80 official victories.and was later given command of the 'Flying Circus', a unit comprised of Germany’s elite fighter pilots.  He was killed in action in April 1918 and buried by the British with full military honours.

  • Segeant Mottershead by Cowan Dobson

    Segeant Mottershead by Cowan Dobson
    Art.IWM ART 2364

    Thomas Mottershead was working as a mechanic at the outbreak of war and enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps. In January 1917, he was on patrol with his observer, Lieutenant Gower, when they encountered two German fighters. During combat their aircraft caught fire, but Mottershead flew back over British lines, manoeuvring the aircraft in such a way as to prevent the flames harming Gower. Their aircraft collapsed on landing, trapping Mottershead in the burning wreckage. He died in hospital as a result of his injuries. He was the only Non-Commissioned Pilot to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

  • Major J B McCudden by William Orpen

    Major J B McCudden by William Orpen
    Major J B McCudden by William Orpen
    Art.IWM ART 2979

    James McCudden joined the Royal Flying Corps as a mechanic in 1913, when he was just 18 years old. He went on to become one of the highest scoring British fighter pilots of the First World War, with 57 victories . McCudden was awarded the Victoria Cross in the spring of 1918 and after a brief rest was posted back to the Western Front to take control of his own squadron. He was killed in a flying accident on 9 July.

5. In what other ways did aerial warfare develop?

  • Disrupting the enemy

    Disrupting the enemy
    Q 67698

    Aircraft were also used to support ground troops. Ground attacks were aimed at disturbing enemy forces at the front, often during active battles. During ground attacks explosives, such as grenades and bombs, were dropped from a low altitude to ensure accuracy and machine guns were fired at targets on the ground.

  • Bombing

    Bombing
    Q 27521

    Tactical aerial bombing, or the hitting of targets on the battlefield, became an important part of the war. Bombing of both military targets and more strategic objectives, such as factories and bases on the home fronts, were soon a common occurrence. This aerial photograph shows British bombs falling on to a target behind enemy lines.

  • Bristol Braemar Mk. I

    Bristol Braemar Mk. I
    Q 67529

    Aircraft became larger as the need for bombers grew. These aircraft could carry large quantities of explosives to drop on strategic targets, like factories and dockyards. They depended on long range and reliability as targets were often well behind enemy lines. By the end of the war aircraft had developed and improved dramatically.

6. How did aerial bombing change things on the Home Front?

  • Danger at home

    Danger at home
    Danger at home
    Art.IWM PST 12052

    From 1915, air raids by aeroplanes and airships brought the realities of war to the home front. They became a common threat with attacks aimed at both civilian and industrial areas.   The use of Zeppelin airships caused fear throughout Britain and the government used this fear to help the recruitment drive.  Incendiary ammunition that could shoot down airships was eventually developed making defence easier, but air raids continued until the end of the war.

  • Zeppelins

    Zeppelins
    Zeppelins
    Documents.5508

    Early British air defences were inadequate against German attacks and many raiders returned home untouched. This letter was written by Patrick Blundstone in 1916.  It describes the night Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson became the first person to shoot down an airship over Britain, using a combination of explosive and incendiary bullets to pierce the airship’s skin and set fire to leaking gas.

  • Zeppelins

    Zeppelins
    Zeppelins
    Documents.5508

    Early British air defences were inadequate against German attacks and many raiders returned home untouched. This letter was written by Patrick Blundstone in 1916.  It describes the night Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson became the first person to shoot down an airship over Britain, using a combination of explosive and incendiary bullets to pierce the airship’s skin and set fire to leaking gas.