The Critical Role of Aircraft in the First World War

Peter Curry

3 mins

25 Sep 2014

Image credit: National Library of France

On 22 September 1914, British aircraft attacked the zeppelin sheds at Dusseldorf and Cologne marking the beginning of the air war.

World War One, which began just 11 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, was the first major conflict in which aircraft played a significant role. By the end of the war, the air force had grown into a critical branch of the armed forces.

Learn who is considered the true father of the RAF, why a flag must be evacuated in the event of a fire and why there are two portraits of World War One German flying aces in the college library.Watch Now

Reconnaissance

The first role fulfilled by aircraft in the early days of the war was that of reconnaissance. Aeroplanes would fly above the battlefield and determine the enemy’s movements and position. These reconnaissance flights shaped several of the critical early battles of the First World War.

A German plane at the Battle of Tannenberg spotted Russian troops massing for a counter-attack and reported the movements back to General Hindenberg. Hindenberg believed that the reconnaissance report won him the battle, commenting:

Reconnaissance also undermined German plans of attack. At the First Battle of the Marne, Allied reconnaissance aircraft spotted a gap in the German lines, which they were then able to exploit, splitting the German force and driving them back.

Handley-Page two-engined bomber in flight over oil tanks. The Handley Page bomber’s max speed topped out at about 97 miles per hour. Credit: U.S. Air Force / Commons.

Bombers and fighters

As the war progressed, both sides began to employ aircraft for the purposes of bombing.

Early aircraft were limited in the role since they could only carry very small bomb loads. The bombs themselves, and their stowage, were also primitive, and bomb sights were yet to be developed. The early aircraft were also very vulnerable to attacks from the ground.

By the end of the war, faster long-range bombers had been developed, capable of carrying a much larger weight of munitions.

With more planes taking to the skies, enemy pilots began to fight each other in the air. The first attempts at aerial engagement involved shooting at other pilots with rifles or pistols, and even attempting to throw hand-grenades into the cockpits of enemy aircraft.

Original colour photo of a French Nieuport fighter of World War I. Credit: Fernand Cuville / Commons.

Both sides quickly realised that the optimal means for bringing down enemy planes was the addition of a machine gun. Clearly mounting a forward-facing machine gun would have disastrous consequences for a propeller aircraft. This changed with the introduction of the interruptor gear. Invented by the Germans, this ingenious technology synchronised the machine gun with the propeller, allowing the bullets to pass through without hitting the blades.

In time, the Allies developed interrupters of their own, but for a while this new addition won Germany control of the skies. With this invention, pilots could now engage each other effectively in the air. Soon, ‘aces’ began to emerge – pilots who shot down large numbers of aircraft.

The most famous fighter ace was Manfred von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron, who shot down 80 aircraft.

Historian Richard van Emden, explains why we should give more attention to 1918 when studying the First World War. How close did Germany come to winning the war in early 1918 and how did the soldiers feel who faced their final onslaught?Listen Now

Airships

Airships were also used during World War One for both reconnaissance and bombing. Germany, France, and Italy all used airships. Germans named their airships Zeppelins, after their creator, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

German airship Schütte Lanz SL2 bombing Warsaw in 1914. Credit: Hans Rudolf Schulze / Commons.

Airships were able to fly higher than fixed-wing aircraft, and they held greater payloads. However, the bombing capabilities were somewhat limited, as they often had to fly at night and at high altitudes to avoid being hit by artillery. This made it difficult for them to see their targets.

Airships were much more effective as a tool of intimidation.

Airships were also useful in naval battles due to their ability to spot submarines, which were almost invisible to ships but relatively easy to spot from the air.

Over the course of the war, the role played by aircraft grew exponentially. By the end of the conflict, they formed an integral part of the armed forces, frequently operating in coordination with the infantry, artillery and the other great technological advance of the war, the tanks.