Hi there, you are not logged in - log in or register here

When Europe Went Mad

When Europe Went Mad: A Brief History of the First World War



When Europe Went Mad: A Brief History of the First World War

- a new title by Terence Finn, working with Tim Kenney marketing - watch the review in the next journal!



St. Mihiel was an American victory and was celebrated as such. Once again, as at Cantigny, Chateau Thierry, and Belleau Wood, the AEF troops had fought hard. Indeed, the German high command took note of the Americans’ aggressive spirit. But the sense of victory from St. Mihiel must be tempered. It is generally conceded that a more experienced army would have taken a greater number of prisoners. Additionally, the German army, aware of the forthcoming assault and of its vulnerability within the salient, had begun to withdraw. The fight was not as fierce as it might have been. Nonetheless, the American First Army had gone into battle and won.
Next time, at the Meuse-Argonne, the fight would be far more difficult.

Noteworthy in the attack upon the salient at St. Mihiel was the widespread use of aircraft. Over 1,400 airplanes took part in the operation. They were flown by American, British, and French pilots (and a few Italians). In command of this aerial armada was Colonel Billy Mitchell who, postwar, would become a leading advocate of American air power.

The airplane came of age in the First World War. Armies and navies too, saw opportunities in the use of aircraft. They pushed aeronautical technologies such that planes became faster, more versatile, and somewhat more reliable. They also became weapons of war. Machine guns were carried, though at first their impact was slight. But, when interrupter gears were developed so that machine guns could be fired safely through spinning propellers, airplanes became efficient killing machines.

These machines were called pursuit planes, what today are termed fighters. They carried a crew of one, the pilot, and could attain speeds of up to 140 mph. In Germany and Britain, in America and France, and in other countries as well, pursuit pilots became national heroes, especially those who destroyed five enemy aircraft, thus winning the coveted (but unofficial) title of ace. Famous still today is the German ace Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron. His score of 80 kills was the highest tally of any pilot in World War One. The leading American ace was Eddie Rickenbacker who, flying French-built aircraft, knocked down 26 German planes.

Despite the fame associated with pursuit pilots, they and their aircraft did not play a decisive role in the war. Nor did the bombers. These were larger machines, multi-engine, with a crew of three or four. From 1915 on, they were heavily engaged, bombing enemy troops and installations. But, the size and number of bombs they could carry were slight and the accuracy of their aim uneven. So they, too, played a secondary role.

However, one particular bomber is worth mentioning. This is the German Gotha G IV. Powered by two Mercedes six-cylinder engines, the airplane had a top speed of 88 mph at
12,000 feet. More noteworthy was its range. The Gotha could fly from Ghent, Belgium to London, England and back, which it did on more than one occasion. As did German Zeppelins, rigid-framed airships. Together, they constituted the first ever effort at strategic bombing. Though they killed some 1,500 people in England, the damage they caused was insignificant.

Their principal impact was to alarm civil and military authorities forcing both to devise appropriate defenses and, with good cause, to worry about what the future might bring.
The one function performed by aircraft during World War One that did make a difference on the battlefield was reconnaissance. Airplanes were used to locate enemy positions and to track the movement of enemy troops. In 1914-1918 these planes usually were two-seaters. Up front was the pilot. To his rear was the observer who, when the need arose, also functioned as a gunner. Occasionally, observation aircraft proved decisive. In 1914, for example, they alerted Joffre to the gap between the German First and Second Armies as the two enemy forces approached the Marne.

Later in the war, observers would employ specially developed cameras with which to photograph the enemy. On both sides aerial photography was extensive. Such was the extent of this activity that a principal function of pursuit planes was the destruction of enemy aircraft devoted to observation.

Another important task given to observation aircraft was spotting for artillery. The soldiers who fired the cannons needed to know where their shells were striking. Many times in the course of the war, they were so informed by aircraft aloft for that very purpose.

The first Americans who fought in the sky did so as part of the French Air Service. Many of these initially served as ambulance drivers in units supporting the French army. Indeed, the first Americans to see the ugly face of war transported wounded French soldiers to medical facilities in the rear. They had arrived in France well before the United States entered the war in 1917. Such was their service that 225 of them won citations of valor. No recounting of America’s involvement in the First World War is complete without mention of their work.
In April 1916, the French Air Service established a squadron of pursuit planes piloted primarily by Americans. Like the ambulance drivers, these pilots were volunteers. Eventually, 38 Americans flew in this squadron, which became known as the Lafayette Escadrille. With French officers in charge, the squadron flew over 3,000 sorties and downed in excess of 50 enemy aircraft. One of the Escadrille pilots, Raoul Lufbery, an American born in France, was an ace with 17 victories to his credit. Once the United States entered the war, the Lafayette Escadrille ceased to exist, becoming the 103rd Aero Squadron of the American Air Service. Three months later Lufbery was gone. He jumped (or fell) to his death from a burning aircraft. Pilots back then did not wear parachutes.

In both France and the United States, the Lafayette Escadrille won great fame, not just for its exploits in combat, nor because its mascots were two cute lion cubs named Whiskey and Soda. The squadron gained prominence because it represented the desire of many Americans to aid France in that country’s hour of need. As time passed and the war continued, more Americans joined the French Air Service, many serving with distinction. Today, David Putnam, Frank Baylies, and Tom Cassady are names no longer remembered. But each flew for France to the regret of more than a few German aviators.

American pilots also flew in British squadrons, even after the AEF arrived in Europe. Forty-one of them scored five kills or more. Among these pilots was Howard Burdick. He flew the Sopwith Camel, considered by many to be the best of the Allied pursuit planes. Burdick downed six enemy aircraft in September and October of 1918. Years later, during the Second World War, his son Clinton destroyed nine German planes while piloting a P-51 Mustang of the American Eighth Air Force.

In both Great Britain and America, in France and Germany, pursuit pilots were considered to be men of dash and daring, knights of the sky who bravely confronted the enemy in airborne chariots. Less attention was given to their victims, of whom there were many. The top eight French aces of World War One, for example, killed at least 339 German flyers. These men joined 7,873 others of the Kaiser’s air service who did not survive the war.21 Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, combined in 1918 to form the Royal Air Force, counted 9,378 men who died in their aerial operations. Many of these were boys of 19 or 20,whose flying skills were limited. Due to the demand for pilots, they had been rushed into battle. Needless to say, their chances of survival were slim. This unhappy situation is well portrayed in the 1938 classic film Dawn Patrol, in which a young rookie British pilot, David Niven’s onscreen brother, is sent into battle by the squadron’s commander, played by Errol Flynn. Both Niven’s and Flynn’s characters realize the young pilot is ill-prepared for combat and will not return alive.

The United States had but 237 flyers killed in combat (one of the dead was Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt). The number is small, reflecting the limited time the AEF spent at the Front. Nonetheless, America’s Army Air Service performed extremely well. Its pursuit pilots accounted for the destruction of 781 enemy aircraft, losing 289 of their own.22 As the U.S. produced no combat planes of its own, American pilots flew machines designed and built in Britain and France. The latter included both the Nieuport 17 and the SPAD XIII, two aircraft the Americans used to good advantage.

Frank Luke was one of these pilots. He flew the SPAD XIII, a fine machine that by war’s end equipped most U.S. Air Service units. SPAD was the acronym for the French company that produced the airplane: Societe Pour L’Aviation et ses Derives. Hailing from Arizona, Luke served with the 27th Aero Squadron, destroying 18 enemy machines in September 1918. On the 29th of that month, he was shot down by ground fire. His SPAD crashed in enemy territory. Wounded but still very much alive, Frank Luke drew his pistol and fired at the Germans. They fired back and killed him. Today, Luke Air Force Base in Arizona honors his fighting spirit.

Several of the enemy machines Frank Luke destroyed were observation balloons. Tethered to the ground, these reached heights of up to 5,000 feet. With a crew, usually two men, balloons were employed by both sides to monitor the enemy’s whereabouts. Filled with gas, often hydrogen, balloons were frequent targets of pursuit planes. But they were not easy to take down. At their base were numerous anti-aircraft guns just waiting for enemy aircraft to appear. Attacking observation balloons, therefore, was a hazardous venture. Manning them also was dangerous. When struck by incendiary bullets the balloons burst into flames creating a spectacular fireball. Unlike pursuit pilots, however, balloon crews were issued parachutes. The crew’s challenge was to jump neither too soon nor too late.

Article posted: 17/01/2010

Categories: Uncategorised

find us on Facebook Follow us on TwitterGrab our news feed