Aircraft Warfare in WWI

German plane in WWI

U.S. Army / Wikimedia Commons

During the first World War, the industrialization of the aircraft industry became entrenched as a vital piece of the modern war machine. Although it was just shy of two decades after the first airplane was flown in the United States in 1903, by the time the WWI broke out, the military already had plans for these new means of warfare.

In the years leading up to World War One, military aviation was sponsored by powerful people in government and business, and by 1909 both France and Germany had military air branches with a focus on reconnaissance and bombing.

During the war, the belligerents quickly took to the air to gain an advantage. Pilots were initially sent up on missions to photograph enemy bases and troop movements so war strategists could plan their next moves, but as pilots began shooting at one another, the idea of aerial combat emerged as a new means of warfare that would someday evolve into the drone-strike technology we have today.

The Invention of Aerial Combat

The biggest leap forward in early aerial combat came when Frenchman Roland Garros attached a machine gun to his plane, making an attempt to synchronize with the propeller and use metal bands to deflect bullets from this vital piece of machinery. After a brief period of aerial dominance, Garros crashed and the Germans were able to study his craft.

Dutchman Anthony Fokker, who was working for the Germans, then created interrupter gear to allow a machine gun to be safely shot and miss the propeller. Fierce aerial combat with dedicated fighter planes then followed. The cult of the air ace and their tally of kills was close behind; it was used by British, French, and German media to inspire their nations and none were more famous than Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the "Red Baron" because of the color of his plane.

Plane technology, pilot training, and aerial combat techniques all developed rapidly during the first parts of World War One, with advantage switching back and forth with each new development. Battle formation developed by around 1918, when there could be more than a hundred planes all working on the same attack plan.

The Effects of the War

Training was just as deadly as flying; over half of the Royal Flying Corps casualties occurred in training and, as a result, the air arm had become a recognized and highly distinguished part of the military. However, neither side ever achieved total air superiority for very long though the Germans briefly managed to cover their small base at Verdun in 1916 with a dominant air cover.

By 1918, aerial warfare had become so important that there were thousands of planes crewed and supported by hundreds of thousands of people, all produced by a massive industry. Despite the belief—then and now—that this war was fought by individuals daring to fly for either side, aerial warfare was really one of attrition instead of victory. The effect of aircraft on the outcome of the war was indirect. They didn’t achieve victories but were invaluable in supporting infantry and artillery.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, people left the war assuming that the aerial bombardment of civilians could destroy morale and end a war sooner. The German bombing of Britain—via zeppelin in 1915—failed to have any effect and the war continued anyway. Still, this belief persisted into WWII where both sides terror-bombed civilians in order to try to force a surrender.