12 February 2016

The Flanders Air Campaign of 1917: The First Modern Air War

In 1917, the first modern air war took shape over the trenches of Flanders
(ww1battlefields.co.uk)
In the First World War, The Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte proved itself to be a very able air arm over the Western Front despite often being numerically outnumbered by the British and French air arms. Initially part of the Imperial German Army, as the war progressed, the air arm became more and more autonomous, operating for all practical purposes as an independent branch of the German military after the 1916 re-organization of units that led to the formation of the Luftstreitkräfte. While the original intent of the Prussian general staff as well as the rest of the army supported a fully independent air arm, opposition from the Imperial German Navy left the Luftstreitkräfte just short of full independence from the army. Like most inter-service rivalries through military history, the Navy feared less of a voice in military affairs with an independent air arm. In fact, the Imperial Germany Navy refused to give up its air arm to the Luftstreitkräfte. Nonetheless, despite Navy obstacles, the Luftstreitkräfte developed quickly after 1916 with its own centralized control which laid down the infrastructure of what some historians consider the first modern air force- its own commander-in-chief and headquarters staff, staff sections in charge of a range of aviation tasks ranging from logistics, production, training, staffing, doctrine, communications, airfields and even medical units. While the commanders of the Luftstreitkräfte were subordinate to the Imperial German Army, experience had shown that the aviators were most effective when left to their own initiatives. Compared to the Allies, the Luftstreitkräfte general staff were very capable, willing to take advantage of technology, and most importantly, flexible and responsive to the imperatives of the war on the Western Front. The general staff routinely requested and evaluated reports from squadron commanders (a squadron was a Jagdstaffel, or Jasta, for short) who had shown themselves to be particularly successful leaders in battle. Manfred von Richthofen, the legendary "Red Baron", in particular as a commander in the field was a valued source of input for the Luftstreitkräfte general staff. The introduction of one of the best fighter aircraft of the First World War, the Fokker D-7, was attributed to Richthofen's advice to the general staff. 

The pilots of the Luftstreitkräfte were also much more highly trained than their Allied counterparts. In 1916, the year of the formation of the Luftstreitkräfte, a German pilot before flying their first combat mission had to demonstrate proficiency in short and long range navigation, night flying, as well as day and night landings. By the time a German pilot earned his wings, he had flown about 75-80 flight hours. Before getting posted to an operational squadron, pilots then had to go through a special training course that lasted a month in German-occupied France near Valenciennes. Intensive flying took place under the auspices of returning combat veterans. By contrast, the pilots of the British Royal Flying Corps, flew their first combat mission with less than twenty hours of training, surprisingly little of it solo! In the air battles of the spring of 1917, three RFC pilots would be lost for every Luftstreitkräfte lost. 

In May 1917, the British Army began its Flanders offensive, breaking out of its large salient at the Belgian town of Ypres. In the next six months would come some of the bloodiest fighting on the Western Front, but more importantly, the air war above the fields of the Flanders region had all the hallmarks of what would be considered a modern air war- the Germans had an integrated air defense system on their side of the lines, both British and German units carried out interdiction attacks on the each other's rear areas to disrupt supply lines, fighter sweeps were conducted to gain air superiority and attacks were made on opposing airfields to degrade the effectiveness of air support. In addition, close air support was used in a more organized fashion compared to the first half of the First World War. The Luftstreitkräfte in particular, led the way in 1917 with a number of doctrinal innovations in air warfare that even to this day are standard in many air forces. 

Manfred von Richtofen, head of JG 1
(Wikipedia)
Despite massive reinforcement of the Flanders sector by the Luftstreitkräfte, the German pilots remained outnumbered with approximately 600 combat aircraft in the area compared to 850 Allied combat aircraft. Just in fighter aircraft, the Germans were similarly outnumbered with 200 fighter aircraft compared to 350 Allied fighter aircraft. While the superior training of the German pilots offset the numerical advantage of the Allied forces, the Luftstreitkräfte established the first fighter wing, or Jagdgeschwader (JG) to concentrate their forces in very focused attacks. JG 1 was established in June 1917 with four squadrons, or Jastas- Jastas 4, 6, 10, 11 formed the world's first fighter wing with Manfred von Richthofen as the commander. Each Jasta had twelve or more aircraft and approximately fifteen pilots, giving JG 1 fifty aircraft. The entire wing functioned as an operational unit and this allowed the Luftstreitkräfte to concentrate its aircraft on specific objectives, easily overwhelming Allied aircraft they encountered. This assured the Germans local air superiority over the battlefield as needed. For example, JG 1 might clear an area out of any reconnaissance aircraft to allow the German army to move unseen to Allied eyes. To improve air combat recognition, Richthofen had the Fokker triplanes of his fighter wing painted in bright colors, giving rise to JG 1's nickname, "The Flying Circus". Prior to 1917, the most aircraft that would participate in a given mission from either combatant side were ten or less.

The Flying Circus in action
(Antonio Karidis/ArtStation.com)
Fighter aircraft weren't the only ones to practice the massing of forces on specific objectives. Two seat observation aircraft were used as close air support and interdiction aircraft, the squadronsIt being organized into temporary two and three squadron Jagdgruppen as needed. While a Jagdgeschwader was a permanent unit, Jagdgruppen were temporary and based on a specific tactical objective. Though close air support had been performed by both sides prior to the Flanders campaign in 1917, it would be the Luftstreitkräfte would use close air support for the first time in concentrated mass attacks. Jagdgruppen were assigned to the operational control of an infantry division and would focus on targets in support of the division's objectives. The British approach was haphazard to say the least. While the attack aircraft of the Jagdgruppen were modified with armor plating and employed in organized tactical formations, the Royal Flying Corps sent unmodified single seat fighters and two-seaters singly and in small groups in search of target of opportunity. Like the British fighter pilots, there was no organized training system in place for ground attack pilots. Like the German fighter pilots who had their own tactical school before getting posted to an operational unit, so did the ground attack pilots. The Luftstreitkräfte trained its ground attack pilots with drills on simulated ground targets to hone their skills before being released for assignment on the front. The Germans felt that nuisance raids on targets of opportunity was a waste of resources and would often commit an entire Jagdgruppen in support of a counterattack or to break an enemy advance. Many British battalions were lost after getting pinned down by Jagdgruppen during a German infantry advance. 

To further degrade the effectiveness of the superior numbers of Allied aircraft, the Luftstreitkräfte also carried out highly organized day and night attacks on Allied airfields and aviation supply depots. Night time attacks used parachute flares to illuminate the target area. The Germans also conducted a comprehensive interdiction campaign against the supply lines of the British and French armies. British air assets began to get better organized by the summer of 1917 and conducted a reasonably effective campaign against German rail yards while the Luftstreitkräfte hit not just French rail yards but also the ports of Calais and Dunkirk where the majority of supplies for the British Expeditionary Force arrived from England. While neither side was fully able to cut each other's supply lines, it did serve to divert resources from the battles on the front line. Just as the fighters were organized into fighter wings or Jagdgeschwader, the bomber aircraft of the Luftstreitkräfte were organized into Kampfgeschwader (KG) or bomber wings. This is a recurring theme in the Luftstreitkräfte during the air battles of 1917- concentrate limited forces into larger units and conducted massed attacks against very specific targets, overwhelming the enemy, whether it was fighters, ground attack aircraft, or bombers. 

Another advance of the Luftstreitkräfte in 1917 not used by any other air arm extensively was the use of airborne radio. Use of radio was near non-existent by the Royal Flying Corps or any other Allied air arm at this time. It was most valuable in the hands of two seat observation aircraft performing the role of artillery spotting. A special system using Morse code was developed that allowed observers to radio two and three letter messages quickly to artillery units to assist them in adjusting their fire. Other codes allowed observation aircraft to identify new targets for the artillery units to hit. Some ground attack units also carried airborne radios as well which allowed them to radio strike assessments to commanders as well as receive changes in orders and tasking while enroute. 

Much of why the Luftstreitkräfte had to be so effective in the spring and summer of 1917 was to offset its numerical disadvantage, but there was a broader goal as well of trying to use all that air power had to offer to knock the British out of the war. Many in the German high command saw the the eventual entry of the United States in the First World War and, much like the Second World War, the Germans had no way of matching the American's prodigious production capacity. It was a strategic imperative of the Germany to conclude the war on its own terms before the Americans got involved. 

The German strategic bombing campaign as well as the 1918 air battles will be the subject of future articles here at Tails Through Time, so stay tuned! 

Related reading: 


Source: The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 by James S. Corum. University of Kansas Press, 1997, pp 29-34.

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