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Now Entering the Final Year of the First Air War

billy mitchell dangers of wwi aviation hugh trenchard influenza lafayette escadrille rfc/raf wwi

The Final Year of the First Air War

As of November 11th, 2017, aviation tactics and strategy were, shall we say, really taking off. The end of the dogfighting era was approaching as both sides figured out how airplanes could support each other as well as ground troops, becoming a single force in the air.

One recent event would affect the coming year (and coming century) greatly, since Germany's poison pill for Russia had done his work - Lenin on the train, armed with the ideas of Marx and Engels. The Bolshevik Revolution officially happened November 7th, 1917, and would be known as the October Revolution since Russia wouldn't update to the Gregorian calendar till 1918. Germany would use the collapse of the eastern enemy to bring soldiers to the western front before the US could really get involved. As the next world war ended, however, Germany's capital would be brutally split in two by the Soviet Union that Germany helped create.

Air Power, Air Weapon, Air Force

  • The RFC would soon become the RAF, a change not just in initials but in command and focus. Sir Hugh Trenchard would start the British Independent Air Force, which would act strategically as its own airborne weapon. In other words, these British aircraft were no longer just providing support or assistance to the ground force, so the enemy's forces both on the ground and in the air had to react directly to airpower.
  • Through Billy Mitchell, America would make a major contribution to air strategy, with Mitchell's July 1918 solo reconnaissance flight. The information he would discover and the plan he would put together would result in a combined ground and aerial action changing the course of the war. Then in August Mitchell would command an unprecedented 1481 aircraft supporting a ground offensive. 
  • Across the lines, the Red Baron's Jagdgeschwader I, or Jasta I hunting group, was proving a success, and the model would be adopted by many other groups. 
  • Since airplanes were now a useful observation tool, keeping enemy airplanes from observing would also be useful. In April 1918, an Allied retreat would become a rout, vacating trenches and leaving an opening in the lines for Germany to break through. But Germany would not break through, because Germany wouldn't know the Allies had lost control of that ground, because the Allies would have control of the air at that point.

Save the Pilots, and Even More, Save the Planes!

  • Good thing that the US would contribute to strategy, because the US would be unable to contribute desperately needed (and loudly promised) airplanes. From Kitty Hawk to the US entry into WWI, the US military had purchased only 142 airplanes. So in the summer of 1917, Congress appropriated money for more airplanes and engines, the largest sum to date ever appropriated for a single purpose. But even big money couldn't speed things up enough. So as of 100 years ago, the first US-built D.H.4 had been flown only a couple weeks ago. 
  • The Lafayette Flying Corps, which would reach 267 members by the end of 1917, would be transferred to American command. By that time the corps would have a record of 199 victories, while 51 of its members would have been killed in combat, 11 dead of crashes or illness, 19 wounded, and 15 captured. 
  • While British top aces would pile up more victories, new replacements for the British would be rushed into air battle with hardly any flight training (much less combat training), and casualty rates would show it.
  • Meanwhile, the Germans would concentrate more on training and also would be fighting more defensively, conserving their aircraft and pilots. By the fall of 1918, the fortunes of German ground forces would be declining, but the German air force would have some of its best months of the war. September 1918 would show more downed Allied aircraft than any other month of the war, and more than the total for all of 1916.

A Preview of 1918 Flying Machines

  • The Sopwith Camel, which liked to turn to the right but not to the left, would become the most successful British single-seater.
  • Fokker had just introduced the highly maneuverable (a.k.a. hard to fly straight and level) Dr.I Fokker triplane, which, thanks to the Red Baron, would become the icon of WWI aviation and perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the war 100 years later.
  • Germany's best fighter, the Fokker D.VII, would be made famous by Ernst Udet's "Du Doch Nicht!!" tail art. This aircraft, which could hang vertically on its propeller, would result from an airplane design competition in January 1918. Unfortunately for Germany's hopes of winning the war, Germany would not have such an advantage on the ground at the end of the war as Fokker provided in the air.
  • Fokker would also come up with the even faster D.VIII, but it wouldn't be produced in enough quantity for best use.

Of Minor Note in Public Health

  • A flu outbreak in Kansas in the next few months would seem unremarkable until it started spreading in a more deadly form, killing five to ten times as many people as the war would. US aviators, coming in at the end of the war, would be far more likely to die from flu or airplane accident than combat.

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