Charlie Keitch and Josh Blair
Thursday 7 December 2017
  • First World War
  • KS3-4

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?

A B.E.2. biplane on the ground
© IWM (Q 66016)

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

B.E.2. biplane

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 used to communicate enemy troop movements
© IWM (FLA 394)

Message Streamer

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.

A C Type reconnaissance camera used in the First World War
© IWM (PHO 26)

Reconnaissance Cameras

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.

Overlapping photographs of German lines being studied
© IWM (Q 8533)

Aerial Photographs

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?

Metal flechette with a point at one end and an "X" cross-section along the shaft
© IWM (AIR 232)

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

Projectiles

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
© IWM (MOD 349)

A model of the Fokker Eindecker

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.

Closing Up: A Bombing Formation of British Biplanes (DH9a s) Closing Up to Beat Off an Enemy Formation of Fokker Triplanes by Horace Davis
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3071)

Air-to-air combat

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?

Officer running a class on attacking maneuvers in the RFC training facility in Toronto
© IWM (HU 94502)

3. How much training did airmen receive?

Insufficient preparation

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.

First World War recruitment poster for the Royal Air Force
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5277)

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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?

Portrait of "The Red Baron", Manfred von Richthofen
© IWM (Q 67780)

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

The Red Baron

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
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2364)

Segeant Mottershead by Cowan Dobson

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.

Portrait of Major J B McCudden by William Orpen
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2979)

Major J B McCudden by William Orpen

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 1918.

5. In what other ways did aerial warfare develop?

A British airman dropping a bomb during the First World War
© IWM (Q 67698)

5. In what other ways did aerial warfare develop?

Disrupting the enemy

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.

British bombs falling on to a target behind the enemy's lines during the First World War
© IWM (Q 27521)

Bombing

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.

Photograph of a Bristol Braemar Mk. I heavy bomber triplane
© IWM (Q 67529)

Bristol Braemar Mk. I

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?

First World War recruitment poster depicting a German Zeppelin over London
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 12052)

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

Danger at home

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.

Letter concerning the burning of a Zeppelin at Cuffley, Hertfordshire, September 1916
© IWM (Documents.5508)

Zeppelins

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.

Letter concerning the burning of a Zeppelin at Cuffley, Hertfordshire, September 1916
© IWM (Documents.5508)

Zeppelins

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.