Sunday, June 26, 2011

British Aviation in the First World War – Pt 10

Back to Part 9

Aerial Bombardment – for strategic effect

Aerial bombing was not invented during WW1, it had a pre-history’ captured in novels like H.G. Well’s ‘War in the Air’ published in 1908.  What these types of novel ignored or glossed over were the hazards and difficulties of this type of warfare.

Official sanction for bombing was given in an RFC memorandum of late October 1914 which called for all pilots doing reconnaissance to carry bombs.  Initial bombing was random and spontaneous, with little official guidance of instruction.  It was not until January 1915 that the RFC made its first ‘organised’ bombing attacks against Lille railway station and airship sheds at Ghistelle.  The RFC began codifying its bombing experiences in a note published on 15 Feb 1915 called ‘Bomb Dropping Attacks’.  It recognized the difficulty of achieving accuracy, there not being any bombsights at this stage, and recommended releasing bombs from an altitude of 500 feet in order to achieve an accuracy of 50 yards.  This point-blank bombing exposed the aircraft to machine-gun and rifle fire from the ground, and resulted in many casualties for minimal gain.

Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 was the first occasion where bombing was planned to have a delaying effect on the bringing up of German reinforcements.  In August 1915, coincident with Trenchard taking command of the RFC, RFCHQ reviewed the results of bombing up to that time.  It was found that of the 141 attacks made on railway objectives, only 3, according to the available evidence, had been successful.  As a result Trenchard called on GHQ to lay down:

‘that the present spasmodic efforts against unsuitable or unimportant objectives will be discontinued.  Aeroplanes will not be used by Armies in attempts to influence local situations by bombing railway stations and junctions.  Sustained attacks with a view to interrupting the enemy’s railway communications will be ordered by G.H.Q. in conjunction with the main operations of the Allied Armies.’

Trenchard was aware of the need to concentrate his bombing resources, achieving this was to prove problematic for the rest of his time in command of the RFC.

At Loos attempts to co-ordinate the efforts of the RFC, RNAS, and the French aviation corps against 37 targets associated with the German railway system resulted in 51/2 tons of bombs being dropped to minimal effect.  The whole 51/2 tons against 1 or 2 of the key targets would probably have been more successful.  In December 1915 RFCHQ issued a paper on bombing policy.  It stated that:

‘the go-as-you-please methods have been abandoned definitely by both the French and by ourselves in favour of attacks carried out by swarms of aeroplanes.  It is now an accepted principle that attacks on all important objectives should be carried out by as many aeroplanes as possible, all the aeroplanes flying together and reaching the objective together.’

By this stage of the war the leader of a ‘swarm’ was equipped with a simple bombsight, the leader dropping his bombs was the key for the rest of the formation to follow suit.

During the Somme battle bombing initiatives were hampered by a theme that was to feature for the rest of the war.  The issue of decentralization left 4th Army on the 1st July with only 28 aircraft to carry of the role of denying German rail access along the whole of the 4th Army Front.  These aircraft operating without escort became easy prey for the German scouts.  Ten aircraft were lost in the first 3 days, forcing a change of tactics.  Later in the battle in an attempt to draw German fighters away from the 4th Army Front Trenchard, unable to call on the resources available to the other Armies, used the only tool he could.  He ordered that the RFC Brigades associated with the disengaged Armies to carry out bombing attacks on their own fronts.  At the time Trenchard wrote:

‘There are very few German aircraft opposite the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Army Fronts but I hope the results of our air work during the last two days will induce the enemy to send some of his fighters back again’.

It did not work.  Trenchard turned to the RNAS for fighter aircraft help, whilst continuing focused but not concentrated bombing on the 4th Army Front, both by day and night.  During the Somme a sense of bombing concentration was achieved by the number of times a target was revisited, however the daily average weight of bombs dropped (2 tons) whilst doubling that at Loos was still insufficient.
[ Loos 37 targets 51/2 tons of bombs – 6 days (23-28 Sep 15)… Somme 298 targets 292 tons of bombs – 140 days]

Amiens 1918 – Bombing for strategic effect

At Amiens in 1918 the RAF employed a greater concentration of aircraft than ever before.  Despite the large number of sorties flown, the RAF day bombers inflicted little physical damage of any importance.  The main reasons for the RAF bombers’ failure to inflict significant damage were the inaccuracy of the bombing and the use of light bombs with feeble explosive power.  After the war Wing Commander (later Marshal of the RAF Sir) John Slessor conducted a detailed study of air operations during the Amiens battle. His candid and perceptive comments on the use of air power during the battle appeared in the 1936 book “Air Power and Armies”.

‘In the event, the RAF made two contributions of great importance to the success of the initial attack on August 8th. First, the complete surprise achieved was largely due to the high degree of air superiority prevailing… Secondly the action of the low-flying fighters on the 8th was a factor of first-class importance in the overwhelming success of the initial break-in. But apart from those two factors it is impossible to assert with any confidence that the result of the battle after about 1400 hours on the 8th [the first day of the offensive] would have been materially different, or that the ultimate line reached and held by our forward troops on the 11th [the last day] would have been materially short of where in fact it was, if not a bomb had been dropped or a round fired by aircraft against ground objectives… If this is so it is a damaging admission, in view of the fact that this battle saw the greatest concentration of air strength in any battle of the War…’  Slessor, J.C. “Air Power and Armies”, Oxford University Press, London, 1936

Coupled with the command problem of decentralization was a perception that pervaded the command staffs, as an RAF officer recalled:

‘Throughout the war staffs who were under no illusions as to the weight of shells required for a given operation, appeared to think that some magic in the air would enable them to gain decisive results with one-hundredth the part of the necessary weights, provided it was in the form of aircraft bombs’


One thing that should be clear is that fitting air power into the battle plan was not accomplished easily or smoothly.  The new arm was so different and its capabilities and limitations so difficult for outsiders to grasp, that friction was inevitable.

Whilst  there is no doubt  that the RFC/RAF’s focus was tactical and ground centric there is some debate over whether this focus hampered the imaginative development of the air arm in other areas.

The lack of success in the area of strategic bombing is held up as an example of this.  Changes in organisation may have facilitated concentration but the reality was that technological limitations of the aeroplane itself determined where and how the nascent airpower had to be applied.

In the next set of Blog's I shall be looking at how Trenchard’s ‘Relentless and Incessant Offensive’ affected the development of the RFC.

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