The First Air War

Author: Lee Kennett was born on August 11, 1931 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He had a an international career as a historian and a writer, where he specialized in military history. He held positions at the University of Georgia; the Lindbergh Professorship at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution; visiting lecturer at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Aeronautical Section in Moscow; and was decorated by the French Government as Chevalier, Ordre des Palmes Academiques, for "services to French culture". He died in 2011.

Thesis: “While the role of the air weapon in the Great War was a modest one, the role of the Great War in the rise of air power was anything but modest.” (226)

Prior to the First World War, many nations were trying to figure out what to make of aerial platforms and the potential use in war. At the 1899 Hague conference, Russia sponsored the idea of placing a ban on the use of aerial vehicles for weapons. Nations agreed upon a 5-year temporary ban due to the idea that technology advances in airpower could “decrease the length of combat and consequently the evils of war.” (2) The second Hague conference in 1907 again made a temporary 5-year ban however much like the ban on chemical weapons it was fruitless. In 1908, Count Zeppelin flew over Switzerland drawing the question of to whom the air belonged. (10) Although France called a conference to discuss the matter in 1910, it was inconclusive forcing each state to enact laws regulating its airspace. In order to develop air forces governments relied on donations and civilian industry prizes to build the aircraft needed. Additionally, the reliance on domestic civilian companies for dirigibles to move troops resembled what we now see as the CRAF today (16)

One of the first applications of air power in war came in 1911 when Italy fought the Turks in Libya. This introduced a number of first for air combat: reconnaissance mission, bombs on enemy positions, aviator wounded in action, motion picture film, and wireless transmissions. Reports showed observation was the best use as bombing had little effect. (18) As WWI broke out, Balloons were the first air major weapon used. Operators observed the movement of forces and assisted in the placement of artillery rounds. Balloons lined the edge of battle and provided the best observation platform due to their stability and ability to communicate with ground forces. (24) The vulnerability of balloons led to further development in observation aircraft and many military leaders saw this as the primary mission. French General Joffre stated that for airplanes, “all other missions, liaison, bomb dropping, etc. were to be carried out only after the artillery’s needs had been met.” (33) He felt pilots needed to work with the same units to overcome the friction of war.

During the war, strategic bombing and aerial combat in general, was relatively ineffective however, many of the theories of airpower developed as technology advanced. The basic thought was that no one wanted to fight an attritional war on the ground again. Training and industrial growth enabled the development of the airplane as an offensive weapon and provided the background for future tactics and strategy used in WWII.


- German wireless transmissions thought to be jammed by Russians (34)

- Some night reconnaissance took place as railroads and troops (campfires) were observed. (35)

- Reconnaissance aircraft dropped spies behind enemy lines. (36)


- 3 objectives for strategic bombing: 1) deprive enemy of war material or access to it 2) strike at “nerve centers” i.e. government buildings 3) population and the morale factor

- Many feared bombing although it had little effect. One area that airpower gained an advantage was when troops were in a position protected from artillery (side of a mountain or ravine) as they could not avoid air attacks (49).

- Developed four types of bombs: high explosive, fragmentation, demolition, incendiary (51)

- Bombsights promoted but still inaccurate. Threats to bombers increased with advent of fighters in 1915 and increased air defenses.

Aerial Combat

- First machine gun for possible application on an airplane was from USA Officer Isaac Lewis in 1911. In 1913, the Hotchkiss machine gun was invented. Eindecker was the first to synchronize the gun to the prop in Germany in 1915. (69) Allies did not recover one of the German planes until almost a year after its introduction.

- Tactics developed: fighters should never fly alone, formations of six aircraft ideal, briefings before and after (74)

- Fighters liked to fly escort in loose formation while observers wanted them closer (76)

- Air services grew as the war progressed. Weather stations were expanded (88).


- In 1918, the service life of an aircraft was 6 months. The evolution of technology was so rapid that a plane could go from a conception to production in 6 months. (94) States cut corners speed up production resulting in aircraft that were often tested on the battlefield. However, nations set specifications for aircraft. In 1911, the U.S. laid out 12 specifications to civilian companies (examples: 65 mph, climb 1,500 ft/min, enough fuel for 3 hrs of flying). (96) They actually had safety boards to investigate crashes and understand if there was a mechanical failure.


- Often only single men could fly in European Militaries due to the danger. (114) In the early days, weight restrictions were placed on pilots even though strength was needed to handle the airplane. Temperament and previous military roles were examined to determine the right kind of man for flying. Processes of selection were odd.

- At the onset of war, many training bases closed until the Army realized the need for mass production of pilots. (120) Numbers in France went from 134 in 1914 to 8,000 in 1918. Training took roughly 6 months and evolved into elements of basic and specialty training. (125)


- Lived a life away from the battlefield where they could fight and then return for the normal way of life. They sometimes went on weeks at a time without flying due to weather. The squadron became their life and they developed a high level of camaraderie. This was so high that squadrons, though at the same airfield, often did not know one another. The new units had no tradition so they were finding their way. In addition, there was a lack of respect for uniforms promoting the idea of wearing casual clothes during flight. The military did not recognize combat fatigue until much later as pilots would sometimes perform dangerous acts that were not normal routine. (146)

- Flying was glamorous as pilots were often paid rewards in the early days and newspaper ran reports on most aviators that died in the war. (153) Airman were placed on a pedestal and garnered serious press coverage as national icons. (154)

Eastern Front

- Air war was not as significant due to the great distances, lack of airfields or supplies, terrain, and overall lack of attention paid to production, training, or fighting in the air. (176)

Maritime Aviation

- In 1910, Eugene Ely took off from a ship and he landed on a ship in 1911. (188)

The use of seaplanes on the high seas was difficult as they were limited to waves and wind restrictions. (193)

- Seaplanes and Blimps had little effect on attacking U-boats. (199)

- In the 1890s, French aviation pioneer Clement Ader worked on an aircraft design ideas (though his work was not published until 1909). He saw the need for a flush deck, elevator to deliver aircraft from below, aircraft with folding wings and tires, and the need to steam into the wind for launch and recovery. (193) The first flat top like this was not developed until 1918 by the Royal Navy. (194)

Parting shots

- “By what period it (airpower) actually did shorten the war it is impossible to say.” (217)

- “One could make the argument that military aeronautics suffered almost as much from the attentions of its partisans as from the attacks of its enemies—this because its partisans rather consistently oversold it.” (219)

- “It must be said that their visions of air power were simply premature more often than they were wrong.” (219)

- Observation was the most important role as fighter and bomber effects were ambivalent (220)

Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare

Author: Tami Davis Biddle is an Associate Professor of National Security and Strategy at the United States Army War College. She teaches military and diplomatic history, national security policy, and grand strategy. Her research focuses on the evolution of military ideas, and their implementation as strategies for national defense and methods of warfighting.

Purpose of the book: “trace and compare the development of ideas about long-range bombing in Britain and in the United State—that two nations that relied most heavily on this new form of warfare during the Second World War.” (3)

Thesis: Errors in assumptions on modern industrial societies and their vulnerability to bombing led to the idea that strategic bombing would be an effective tool on civil targets.

Biddle used the beginning of her book to explain how Britain and the United States drew conclusions from WWI that led to the selection of strategic bombing as the primary course of action in air warfare. She argues that two cognitive processes led to the decision to execute strategic bombing in WWII: data-processing shortcuts and the negative effects of stress that lead to poor decision making. (5) Another contributor was the individual and organizational drive for an independent Air Force. She stated, “to acquire legitimacy, any institution must take the argument for its existence in reason and in nature. This is precisely what the British and American airmen sought to do, but the process was inherently liable to error and bias.” (6) A major problem in the argument for strategic bombing was the significant gap between possibilities and the actual technical capabilities. (11) Theorists made two major mistakes; they underestimated the difficulties in finding and hitting a target from high altitude and overestimated a bombers ability to penetrate enemy airspace. (9) Biddle stated, “bold claims for the power of bombers were combined with a lack of focused attention to how, precisely they would operate in war, and how, exactly, bombing an enemy might lead to its political capitulation.” (8)

Another flaw she pointed out was, “a fundamental assertion that became central to Anglo-American thinking about long-range bombing was that modern, complex, urban-based societies are fragile, interdependent, and therefore peculiarly vulnerable to disruption through aerial bombing.” (7) In the Balkan War of 1912-1913, an idea developed that “the importance of aeroplane bombs lies in their moral effect—in the impression created that the machine in the sky is a real source of danger.” (19) The moral effect, as Carl argued in On War, became more prevalent in discussions on war and the application of the civilian population. There was consideration that the lower wages paid in cities (i.e. lower class citizens) and the melting pot of races found in cities made these areas less robust and challenged the ability for a once strong nation, to be strong again in war. (16) She argued this thought process was wrong in WWI and that bombing actually made the population angry versus fearful. (30) The one point she argued that was a success in strategic bombing was it forced Germany to divert fighting forces to defend the cities. (62)


- Trenchard assumed command of the Royal Flying Corps in France in 1915. He was willing to accept high casualties and wear down the enemy through relentless attacks (sought the decisive battle). He argued that you cannot be defensive because there are too many avenues for attack (big sky theory) so you must go on the offensive and gain freedom of maneuver over the enemies airspace. This caused Germany to changes its tactics and concentrate on local superiority thereby using concentration that was able to deliver high attrition rates on Britain. (27) Though many argued for an independent AF, Trenchard was against it and felt that its existence was to support the older services. (33)

- April 1918 the Royal Air Force was established. (34) Trenchard was selected as the first Chief of Air Staff however he resigned over a disagreement over the reality of strategic bombing (36) Trenchard felt that strategic bombing should be conducted out of remaining resources and used to keep the enemy on the defensive. He argued that current capabilities did not enable the bombers to strike during the day. He did argue that the moral effect of bombing cities may be great while the physical affect is small. While in charge of the British Independent Force he laid out a strategy to attack a large number of objectives to force the enemy to disperse his force and then strike a target repeatedly (41). Trenchard recognized the need to attack areas that were well within range, this meant mostly military targets. Trenchard instead of choosing to concentrate all attacks on one industrial area, choose to attack many in order to sell the idea that “no town felt safe” (48) This fit with his argument that the moral effects were the primary target and destruction of industry a secondary. (47) He later became the head of the RAF.

- General Pershing mentioned air power infrequently in his post war report. He stated aerial operations were to support the army over independent operations and that observation was the key task. (56)

United States

- U.S.: 1st Aero Squadron established in 1914 with 8 planes and 10 pilots. Aviation truly did not take off until 1917 as congress allotted the funding for 12K combat acft, 5K tng acft and 24K engines.

- Foulois was made the chief of Air Service and he recommended Mitchell for the combat arm. Mitchell proposed the idea of air as a separate branch of the Army and divided operations into strategic and tactical functions. Mitchell learned to use large formations of bombers with escorts in loose formations. (53)

- Promoted the idea that long distance bombing could weaken the enemy directly (attack of industry, railroads) and indirectly (moral affects) (55)

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