The RFC’s greatest contribution during WW1 was the support provided to the Army. ; aerial fighting was the enabler. Bombing particularly at the strategic level was very much work in progress, hampered by technological limitations and a decentralized organization that made concentration difficult.
Illustrated above is a summary of current British Air Power Doctrine – AP3000. There are essentially 3 primary roles for aviation: Control of the Air, Anti-Surface Force Ops (incl Strategic bombing), and Combat Support Ops (incl Air Reconnaissance and Surveillance).
It is now accepted that control of the air, to the necessary degree is a precursor to the other 2 roles. Prior to the First World War it was realized in military circles that reconnaissance information gained from the air would ultimately have to be fought for. Following the success of RFC reconnaissance in the British Army manoeuvers of 1912 General Sir James Grierson stated ‘It is impossible to carry on warfare unless we have mastery of the air’. What could not be defined beforehand and proved problematic throughout the war was what constituted ‘mastery of the air’. In current parlance the terms, air supremacy, air superiority, and favourable air situation linked to time and space are used to describe the ‘mastery’ required to facilitate anti-surface force or combat support operations.
Aerial Combat – the losers……
During the First World War with airpower in its juvenile state these subtleties were being learnt. Trenchard’s ‘relentless and incessant offensive’, whilst recognizing the offensive characteristics of airpower, was a clumsy attempt to achieve air supremacy along the whole British front. The inability to conceptualize ‘mastery of the air’, coupled with the decentralized organization, led to an over emphasis on scout (fighter) aircraft development at the expense of the army support missions, hence the BE2, obsolete by mid 1915 but still in service in the summer of 1917 and the RE8, the BE2’s replacement, a significant step forwards well armed but with an inherent stability making it completely unsuitable for even defensive aerial combat.
Aerial Combat - 1915
Aerial combat started as a ‘heath robinson’ affair with machine guns being fitted on an adhoc basis (Note Lanoe Hawker’s Bristol Scout fitted with a Lewis gun on the side of his aircraft – illustrated below). As a Squadron Commander during the Somme Lanoe Hawker’s directive to his pilots ‘attack everything’ epitomized Trenchard’s philosophy. Between November 1914 and mid 1915 the RFC had achieved aerial superiority over the British front using the likes of the FB5. At this stage fighting aircraft were allocated in ones and twos to each squadron as a mechanism to inculcate the offensive spirit in all RFC Squadron’s, irrespective of role. The RFC ceded air superiority to the Germans during the summer of 1915 as the first true fighter aircraft appeared, the Fokker Eindecker, Although not a particularly maneuverable aircraft its strength lay in the use of an interrupter gear that enabled the pilot to point the aircraft at an enemy and fire his machine gun through the propeller. Between August 1915 and early 1916 the RFC were roughly handled by the German air service. As RFC losses began to outstrip replacements Trenchard was forced to cut down on Army co-operation missions as aircraft began to fly in formations escorted by the small numbers of British scouts.
Aerial Combat - 1916 - 1917
Between early Jan 1916 and the start of the Somme the RFC were re-equipped with the FE2 (the first full squadron arrived in France 23 Jan 16) the DH2 (the first full squadron arrived in France 8 Feb 16) and 2 Flts of Sopwith 1 ½ Strutters (the first British tractor aircraft fitted with an interrupter gear). With these aircraft the RFC wrestled back air superiority in time for the start of the Somme and set the pattern for offensive patrolling applied for the rest of the war. During 1916 the RFC scouts were formed into squadrons and began conducting constant patrols. Offensive patrols which penetrated up to 15 miles into German airspace with an airfield of railway station as a target, and the more frequent line patrols which flew perhaps 30 miles of line, about 3 miles on the German side. A scout squadron’s day would be fitted around line patrolling so as to maintain an unbroken succession of patrols over enemy territory, with the express aim of intercepting German scouts, thus protecting the Army co-operation aircraft. Whilst the RFC maintained air superiority the tactic worked.
From late August 1916 the German air arm, following its mauling at the start of the Somme, began to re-equip and reorganize. From mid September it began forming fighting Sqn’s (Jasta’s) and in October centralized control of Army aviation under one commander. During September RFC reports began referring to a new German aircraft that attacked on sight. The Germans were introducing new Halberstadt and Albatross aircraft, faster, more maneuverable, with greater fire power (2 forward firing machine guns) than any of the RFC aircraft.
The scene was being set for ‘Bloody April’ the month that German aviation reached its zenith on the Western Front and the RFC experienced their highest monthly casualty figures of the war. It would take the arrival of the Sopwith Camel, Bristol Fighter, and SE5a, employing the patrol tactics started during the Somme, to counter the German dominance in time for 3rd Ypres.
Aerial Combat - 1918
In early 1918 with the RFC approaching its peak the Germans with an industry starved of raw material still produced what was arguably the best fighting aircraft of the war, the Fokker D. VIII.