The Role of Aircraft in World War I

The First World War saw a rapid expansion in the roles of aircraft that has never been matched since.  Over the course of four and a half years, aircraft went from a secondary tool that bordered on mere novelty, to an extremely valuable component of a country’s arsenal. During World War I, aircraft took on four essential tasks: Reconnaissance, ground attack, air superiority, and strategic bombing.

While aviation was still a new science in 1914, it was better developed than is often supposed.  The major belligerent nations began the war with quantities of aircraft ranging from 150 to 300 each, as well as a significant number of balloons.  The technology was available, and each country was reasonably anxious to make use of it.  In 1914, however, no systematic effort had yet been made to weaponize aircraft.  At first, they were used exclusively in a reconnaissance role.

The early aircraft tended to be light, small, and fairly slow.  While reasonably modern designs, like the graceful Taube, did exist, many of the early reconnaissance planes operated with the propeller in the rear, which allowed a clearer view for the spotter sitting in the front.  Slow speeds were no impediment to performance; in fact, they enhanced it.  There was as yet no aerial threat to slow airplanes, only the risk of ground fire if one passed too close; with slower speeds, however, a better look at terrain and enemy movements was possible.

Tethered balloons, and on the German side, airships participated in this role as well.  Tethered balloons permitted spotters to view the surrounding terrain from elevations of up to six thousand feet.  This was especially useful in battlefield conditions in which speed of communication was crucial, such as in artillery spotting.  Airships were also used in reconnaissance, although with their long range and flying characteristics, they were much more useful in a naval context than over land.

The early planes found reconnaissance more hazardous as measures were taken to shoot down enemy aircraft, from pilots’ pistols to mounted machine guns, but the appearance of true fighters in 1915 required certain changes in the reconnaissance role.  Planes took flight in larger groups, with some planes detailed to protect the designated spotters, while faster engines and shorter excursions became more desirable.  Soon, techniques were developed to take clear photographs from airplanes, and this form of reconnaissance soon became more valuable to planners than the reports that they replaced.

There were certainly limitations to the value of aerial reconnaissance.  Squads of soldiers soon learned how to conceal themselves when they heard aircraft nearby, and glaring holes cropped up in reports as a result.  For their parts, balloons of all sorts proved to be even more vulnerable to fighter craft than other airplanes, and many were shot down.  The usefulness of aerial reconnaissance never abated, however; in fact, with the decline in the use of cavalry that began late in 1914, it quickly became the primary mode of battlefield intelligence.

Ground attack attended military aviation from the beginning of the war, but mostly in a haphazard fashion.  The German army did make use of airships for organized bombing runs in 1914, but lost three airships in this manner and soon found it too costly.  Some pilots, or more often their spotters, would take it upon themselves to bring some weapons to throw down upon the enemy, but the decision to participate in this manner as much as the weapons used to do so were matters of personal taste and accessibility.

Later in the war, it became more common to equip airplanes with small bombs that could be thrown from the plane by its pilot or its spotter or gunner, and it was certainly possible to fire the plane’s guns at soldiers on the ground; accuracy was never particularly good, however, because airplanes were generally more vulnerable to ground fire than ground targets were to attack by the plane itself.

In a glimpse of things to come, the German aircraft manufacturer Hugo Junkers succeeded in developing planes made with metal, instead of canvas, and by 1917, he began to produce the J4, a dedicated ground attack plane that was effectively armored against return fire.  Only 227 were ever made, but they can be considered the precursor of all tactical bombers, and more particularly, the direct ancestor of the StuKa dive bomber of World War II, which was produced in the 1930s by the same firm.

The air superiority role emerged in the summer of 1915.  Early efforts to mount machine guns in airplanes met with only modest success.  The most efficient way to weaponize airplanes was to allow the pilot to point his craft at his target and fire machine guns that were aimed accordingly, but the propeller was in the way.  In 1915, Anton Fokker perfected a device called the interrupter gear, which caused the machine gun to hold its fire when one of the propeller blades passed in front of the barrel.  With that invention, nose-mounted machine guns became possible.

During the summer of 1915, the Germans began fielding the first true fighter planes, Fokker EI monoplanes, in great numbers.  Known as the “Fokker scourge,” this advantage very nearly drove the Allies from the skies, but even before they succeeded in copying the interrupter gear, Allied air corps found a partial answer to this challenge in new squadron tactics.  Once the Allies were able to field dedicated fighters of their own, the familiar pattern of fighter missions was established.

When one side had a particular air mission in mind, such as aerial reconnaissance or ground attack, the appropriate planes would be sent up with a fighter escort.  Enemy fighters would be sent up on patrol, or if the mission in question was detected, they might be sent out to halt that mission.  The enemy fighters had the primary goal of shooting down the reconnaissance planes or bombers, but when they arrived, the faster escort fighters would hasten to intercept them.  Fighter vs. fighter combat ensued, typically known as dogfights.  In 1915 and 1916, tactics of maneuver were developed by the greatest “aces” to outfly their opponents; success frequently meant at least damage to the enemy plane, if not always a proper shootdown.  The fate of the primary air mission depended on the results of the secondary interception mission.

The pattern was fairly stable from 1916 through the end of the war.  Changes in the balance of power between the Allies and the Central Powers thereafter depended largely on new technological developments.  The introduction of leading Allied planes like the Spad and the Sopwith Camel were answered by new German planes like the Albatros and the Fokker triplane.  Often, advantages were conditional instead of absolute, and there is still room for modern historians to debate their relative merits.

The final role to develop was that of strategic bombing.  In a sense, this role was represented early in the war, when the first Zeppelin attacks over London were made.  Those attacks, however, were largely symbolic, and as air defenses improved, they became too risky to maintain.  Heavy bombers began to appear in 1916, and included famed examples like the Handley Page 0/400 and the Gotha G-V.  Heavy bombers posed smaller targets than airships, and were better defended, but could still carry significant bomb loads.  Interestingly, the Russians took the lead in varieties of heavy bombers developed.

In 1917, the Germans replaced airship attacks over London with bomber attacks.  All told, however, German raids on London numbered just over a hundred throughout the entire war; the Allies mounted more than six times as many bombing raids over German territory.  During the last year of the war, Allied attacks on Germany anticipated true strategic bombing by focusing on the industrial Ruhr area.  Overall, however, this role was the least developed of the four by the time of the Armistice.

The First World War began with only a limited role for aircraft, but during the next two years additional purposes developed.  As this happened, more specialized forms of aircraft were invented and new tactics were created.  Of these roles, that of air superiority fighter was most thoroughly developed, while that of strategic bomber remained largely in its infancy.



Cowin, Hugh W.  German and Austrian Aviation of World War I.  Osprey, 2000.

Haythornthwaite, Philip J.  The World War One Source Book.  Arms and Armour Press, 1992.

Treadwell, Terry C. and Alan C Wood.  The First Air War: A Pictorial History 1914-1919.  Barnes & Noble, 1996.

Livesey, Anthony.  Great Battles of World War I.  Greenwich Editions, 1989.


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