If someone mentioned aerial warfare during World War One you would be forgiven for thinking of gripping one-on-one dogfights and the incredible stories of fighter aces like William Barker, Lanoe Hawker and Manfred von Richtofen, ‘the Red Baron’. Yet World War One aerial combat was not all about the fighter plane.
Between 1914 and 1918, the use of specially-designed aircraft for bombing raids came to the fore. Regularly these machines were seen taking to the skies and conducting operations above various theatres of World War One: Germany, France, southern England, Belgium, Turkey, Macedonia, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Palestine etc.
Over the course of the war bomber aircraft were continuously upgraded in all areas – size, bomb load, material, defensive armament and engine power for instance – and by the end of 1918, both the Allies and the Central Powers were fielding some huge bombers.
Here are eighteen key bomber aircraft from World War One.
In 1909, the Bleriot XI made history when Louis Bleriot, its inventor, flew one across the English Channel. Yet Bleriot soon found his aircraft being employed for new, military purposes.
Five years after Bleriot’s historic flight, during the first few months of World War One, the Bleriot XI became a common sight at Allied air bases. Some served as light, ‘nuisance’ bombers, with a cargo of up to 55 lb (25 kg) of small bombs.
Rifles or revolvers were the only armament carried by the crew, although by 1915 those that were still in service started being equipped with a machine gun.
The Bleriot XI was soon removed from active service and used predominantly as a training aircraft.
The world’s first true bomber, the Voisin III was designed before World War One erupted in September 1914. Powered by a 120 h.p. Salmson 9M radial engine, it could carry a 132 lb (60 kg) bomb load. It consisted of a two man crew: a pilot and an observer, who was equipped with a Hotchkiss machine-gun in front.
On 5 October 1914, a French Voisin III, equipped with a Hotchkiss M1909 machine gun, scored the first air-to-air combat victory of the war, when Corporal Louis Quénault shot down a German Aviatik B.I. The German airmen returned fire with rifles and stood no chance. This is believed to be the first air-to-air kill in any war.
From September 1915 onward, the Voisin III was employed mainly as a night bomber and the French Air Force built about eight hundred of them during the War. Many were also used by the Russians, the Italians and the British, making it the most widely-built aircraft of the Voisin series.
Sikorsky’s Ilya Maurometz
The great Russian bomber, the Ilya Mourometz was developed from the world’s first four-engined plane in 1914 by Russian-American aviation pioneer, Igor Sikorsky.
It saw military service from the beginning of World War One until the Russian Revolution in 1917. Its most famous squadron was called the Eskadra Vozdushnykh Korablei, ‘Squadron of Flying Ships’, which conducted over 400 bombing raids and lost only one aircraft.
The Ilya was a formidable plane, fitted with up to seven machine guns and a bomb load weighing up to 1,543 lb. (700 kg.). It also undertook long-range reconnaissance missions on occasion. It holds the record as the first military aircraft to have an enclosed cabin.
First appearing in March 1915, the Caudron G.IV was a two-engine French bomber. It was equipped with a free-firing Vickers or Lewis machine-gun in its front cockpit and, sometimes, a second machine gun over its top wing that could fire behind.
The G.IV came into service in November 1915 for the French Air Force, but they were also soon adopted by the Italian Air Force and used on the Italian Front.
It could carry a 220 lb (100 kg) bomb load and it became a common sight in the skies above the Western Front between November 1915 and the Autumn of 1916, when it was replaced with the Caudron R. series.
The aircraft that never received an official name. The Short Bomber was designed by the Short Brothers in 1915. It consisted of a two man crew: a pilot and an observer, who operated a free-firing Lewis gun.
Its engine was the 250 h.p. Rolls-Royce Eagle and its bombs were transported under the wings. The Bomber usually carried either four 230 lb (104 kg) or eight 112 lb (51 kg) bombs and they began seeing service midway through 1916.
Within a year they were replaced with the famous Handley Page O/100’s.
The second most widely-built Voisin biplane, behind the Voisin III, was the Voisin VIII. With a 220 h.p. Peugeot engine, the Voisin VIII went into service as a night fighter from late 1916 onward.
It could carry a bomb load of up to 396 lb (180 kg) and was equipped with either a machine gun or a Hotchkiss cannon in the front cockpit. The Voisin VIII remained in service until early 1918 and over 1,000 were built.
Handly Page O/ 100
A ‘bloody paralyser of an aeroplane’. That is what the Air Department of the Admiralty asked Handley Page Limited, the United Kingdom’s first publicly traded aircraft manufacturing company, to produce at the end of 1914. Their answer was the Handley Page O/100.
Fitted with two 250 h.p Rolls-Royce Eagle II engines, the O/100 could carry sixteen 112 lb (51 kg) bombs or eight 250 lb (113 kg) bombs. Although it was originally designed to have no defensive armament (just a rifle that would be fired by the observer/engineer), in the end the Handley Page O/100 was equipped with five Lewis guns that covered all blind-spots.
They saw service from November 1916 until the end of the war, predominantly as night bombers tasked with destroying German U-boat bases, railway stations and industrial centres.
Away from the Western Front, they also saw service in the Aegean, in Palestine and partook in the bombing of Constantinople.
Carrying a three-man crew, the G.III appeared in early 1917 as an improvement to its predecessor, the G.II. It was a twin-engine, three-bay biplane that could carry around 1,102 lb (500 kg) worth of bombs. The G.III was also heavily-defended, being equipped with either single or twin Parabellum guns in both the front and rear cockpits.
The G.III predominately served as a night bomber from early 1917 until the end of the war.
The Gotha G.IV was the Avro Lancaster of World War One. It was agile for its size, well defended and soon gained a fearsome reputation in Western Europe. It went into service in March 1917 and served as a daytime bomber. Later that year, in late May, a Gotha G.IV squadron made its first bombing raid on southern England – the first of many.
The Gotha G.IV had a 260 h.p. Mercedes D.IVa engine, carried a three-man crew and was protected by three machine guns: two at the rear of the aircraft, the other in a nose cockpit.
In the rear cockpit, one machine gun was placed topside while the other was placed below in the ‘Gotha Tunnel’: a semi-circular tunnel placed at a downward slant that allowed the rear gunner to cover the ‘blind spot’ below.
Caproni Ca 3
The Caproni Ca3 was a giant, three-engined Italian bomber that replaced its predecessor, the Ca2, in 1917. Its two pilots sat side by side in the centre of the plane, while a gunner/observer sat in the front cockpit with either a Revelli machine-gun or a cannon. At the rear of the plane, in a cage-like cockpit, was a rear-gunner.
Between 1916 and 1918, nearly 300 of these aircraft were built.
The first British high-speed day bomber, the Airco D.H.4 had a 160 h.p. B.H.P engine and proved one of the swiftest, most reliable aircraft of the First World War. It did, however, have one main flaw: its fuel tank was placed in the vulnerable centre of the aircraft, between the two cockpits. In the rear cockpit was the observer, equipped with a Lewis gun.
The Airco first saw service in April 1917 and operated until the end of the war – mostly on the Western Front, but also in Russia, Macedonia, Mesopotamia, the Aegean, the Adriatic and also along the British coastline.
Its maximum bomb load was either two 230 lb. (104 kg) bombs or four 112 lb (51 kg) bombs.
Planes were not solely taking off from land during World War One; during the war the first military seaplanes were also developed. Perhaps the most prominent design made was the Felixstowe F.2A.
Powered by a 345 h.p. Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engine, this was an exceptional aircraft, consisting of up to seven Lewis machine guns spread between the front and rear cockpits.
Beneath its lower wings, the Felixstowe could carry two 230 lb (104 kg) bombs that it used predominantly against U-boats while it could also combat any zeppelins making their way across the North Sea. They operated over British home waters from November 1917 down to the end of the war.
Although nearly three hundred were ordered, by 31 October 1918, the R.A.F had fifty three Felixstowe F.2As in service. After the end of World War One, they served as the basis for future seaplanes.
Size isn’t everything as proved by the Sopwith Baby, a seaplane bomber developed from the 1914 Sopwith Schneider. The Baby had a more powerful engine than its predecessor and was armed with a single, frontal Lewis machine gun. From 1917, it became a key aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and operated both in the North Sea and the Mediterranean.
The Sopwith Bomber served predominantly as a bomber that could carry two 65 lb. bombs. But on occasion it also served both as a fighter plane and as an anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft.
First flown by its inventor, Louis Breguet, in mid-1916, the Breguet 14 was a capable, two-seat, French bomber powered by a reliable 220 h.p. Renault engine. It hold the record as the first mass-produced aircraft to use large amounts of metal, rather than wood, in its structure.
It could carry up to thirty-two 17.6 lb (8 kg) bombs and was protected by several machine guns: a Vickers operated by the pilot, twin Lewis guns on a ring for the observer and a downward-firing Vickers too to protect the aircraft’s soft underbelly.
The Breguet 14 soon proved to be highly efficient and it was ordered in great numbers from 1917 onward, seeing service on the Western Front, as well as in Serbia, Greece, Morocco and Macedonia. Production continued for many years after the end of the war.
Caproni Ca 4
The triplane bomber. Iconic in its three-winged design, the Caproni Ca 4 bomber was introduced by the Italian Air-Force in late 1917. Like the Ca3, two pilots sat side by side in the centre of the plane with a gunner/observer occupying a frontal cockpit.
Rather than a cage-like cockpit at the back, however, the Ca4 installed a rear gunner in each of the two fuselage booms behind the centre wing.
Under the plane was suspended a container that could hold 3,197 lb (1,450 kg) of bombs, meaning it had one of the largest bombload capacities of the War.
Although the Caproni Ca 4 triplane had potential to be a formidable night bomber, they were barely used in combat operations during the last twelve months of World War One.
Perhaps the most iconic of the Caudron R. series was the Caudron R.11 that came into service midway through 1918.
Although originally designed to serve as a bomber, the Caudron R.11 found its element as a ‘flying gunboat’. The aircraft was equipped with five guns: two in each of the front and rear cockpits and the one below the front gunner that could fire at targets both below and behind the plane.
Used during the last four months of the war, these heavily armed gunboats would escort bombers to targets, although if necessary, they could also carry a 265 lb (120 kg) bomb load.
Zeppelin Staaken R.VI
Perhaps the greatest behemoth of them all, the Zeppelin Staaken R. VI was a giant four engine heavy bomber that was operational in the German Air Force from late 1917 onward. Two pilots sat side by side in an enclosed cabin with gunners installed both in front and behind the aircraft’s wings.
Staaken R.VI was reputedly the largest wooden aircraft to be produced in any quantity during World War One. It could carry individual bombs weighing up to 2,205 lb (1,000 kg) each and a maximum load of 4,409 lb (2000 kg).
Handley Page O/400
Britain’s best bomber of World War One, the Handley Page O/400 was an upgrade of the Handley Page O/100. It was installed with higher-powered Eagle IV, VII or VIII engines and could also carry up to 2,000 lb (907 kg) of bombs. Like the O/100 it had a defensive armament of five Lewis Guns: (two on the nose of the aircraft, two on its dorsal, and one below, facing downwards covering the blind spot beneath.
Nearly 800 Handley Page O/400s were ordered during the war period and they first saw service as a day bomber in April 1918. By November 1918, two hundred and fifty eight O/400s were in service with the R.A.F.
Munson, Kenneth 1968 Bombers: Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft 1914-1919 Blandford Press.