Chapter 19 Winged Knights – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 19 Winged Knights

In This Chapter
  • Early development of combat aircraft
  • The airplane as a reconnaissance tool
  • Bombers: zeppelins and airplanes
  • Dogfights, dogfighters, and combat tactics
  • The aces
  • Enter the Americans

For most soldiers in World War I, injury or death came in a curiously impersonal manner: a stream of machine gun fire, indifferent as spray from a hose; the directionless explosion of an artillery shell; a chance whiff of poison gas; an attack of disease, dysentery, cholera, or influenza—whatever the filth of the trenches might spawn.

The defense against injury or death was equally impersonal. Rarely was there any individual opponent to outwit, outrun, or outthink. Instead, a soldier kept his head down and groveled in the mud of a trench. Men who had recently embraced loving wives and adoring children now hugged the indifferent earth.

Perhaps worst of all, never before had war been both so costly and simultaneously so futile. On the Western Front especially, there was nowhere to move—not forward, not back, not side to side.

But a man could still look up.

The sky, clean and clear and pure, still offered room for maneuver and, it seemed, an opportunity to fight an enemy one to one in a contest that, while still deadly, at least seemed to make sense—and even seemed gallant, heroic, and chivalric. This chapter looks at the air war.

The Air War: First Phase

In 1903, inventors Wilbur and Orville Wright fitted a 170-pound, 12-horsepower motor to the craft they christened Flyer I. They took the 750-pound gossamer contraption of fabric and wood to Kill Devil Hill, Kitty Hawk, on the morning of December 17. They flipped a coin. It came up heads, and Orville assumed his position at the controls, lying on his belly across the bottom wing of the craft. The engine erupted into life. The aircraft raced down a rail track laid on the beach for it. Then it took to the air. For 12 seconds, it flew over a distance of some 120 feet.

The Wrights made three more flights that first day, Wilbur managing to keep Flyer I aloft for almost a minute, over a distance of 852 feet. By 1908, the brothers had developed and improved the airplane sufficiently to secure a contract with the U.S. Department of War for the first military aircraft.

But the United States military soon lost interest in flying weapons, and America quickly fell behind England, France, and Germany in the development of aircraft, especially for the purposes of war.


In Europe, progress in aircraft development and design had come a long way by the outbreak of war in 1914, but engines light enough to be borne aloft still had to be quite small and therefore were feeble. This meant that aircraft could carry nothing more than a pilot and perhaps an observer. So, in World War I, airplanes were at first limited chiefly to reconnaissance duties.

Before the outbreak of war, most military planners continued to put emphasis on tethered balloons or, in the case of Germany, airships. Indeed, aerial observation was still viewed as a rather novel adjunct to traditional cavalry reconnaissance, and most armies gave no thought to interdicting—attacking—the enemy’s aerial observers. Nevertheless, armies had recognized some value to airborne reconnaissance almost a half-century before the Wrights’ Flyer.

During the Civil War, intrepid observers were lofted in baskets suspended below balloons filled with highly buoyant but highly combustible hydrogen gas. In World War I, balloons and airships were also used for observation, but the far more maneuverable airplane was even better suited to the observation role, especially if equipped with a radio for real-time communication with the ground. Unfortunately, few aircraft could carry the bulky and heavy radio equipment of the day, so most aerial observers had to land to make their report, or drop a message canister. Observers did have cameras, and photos they took were quickly processed and analyzed. At the First Battle of the Marne (see Chapter 6, “The Marne: Massacre and Miracle”), for example, aviator reconnaissance was invaluable to the counterattack of the Anglo-French armies, which prevented the German capture of Paris.

As both sides became increasingly aware of the value of airborne reconnaissance, they began innovating ways of shooting down the planes. Given the fragility of the fabric-covered wood-framed craft, ground rifle or machine-gun fire was often enough to bring down a plane. But very soon, specially designed antiaircraft guns were developed, as was antiaircraft ammunition.

Another development occurred as well. As reconnaissance craft flew over an enemy base, the enemy began sending up its own aircraft to give chase. Early on, air-to-air combat consisted of airmen exchanging potshots with small arms. In a single-person craft, only a pistol was practical. If an observer was on board, rifle or even shotgun fire was a possibility.

Very soon, as we will see, the belligerents began experimenting with ways of arming airplanes with specially mounted machine guns—and the reconnaissance aircraft evolved into the fighter.

 From the Front The most effective antiaircraft ammunition used a time fuse, which detonated the shell at a certain altitude, blasting out thousands of shrapnel fragments. It was difficult to hit a fast airplane with a direct shot, but the fragile craft and its pilot, seated in an open cockpit, were highly vulnerable to exploding shrapnel fragments.

Strategic Bombing

Airplanes are heavier-than-air craft. Their ability to fly—their lift—depends on a stream of air flowing over an aerodynamically shaped wing. With the technology available during World War I, that airflow was produced by the propulsion of a piston engine–driven propeller or propellers. As we saw in Chapter 5, “Battle of the Frontiers,” Count Ferdinand Zeppelin developed his first airship, or zeppelin, in 1900. Although it was also propelled forward by a motor-driven propeller, lift was provided not by wings, but by highly buoyant hydrogen gas, which inflated rubberized cloth “balloonets” inside the cloth-covered, aluminum-framed hull of the zeppelin. Thus, the airship, or zeppelin, was a lighter-than-air craft.

Zeppelins were big, slow, and difficult to maneuver. The hydrogen gas that gave them their lift was highly combustible. All in all, they made easy and inviting targets. However, the zeppelin was capable of carrying much more weight aloft than any aircraft available in 1914, and it had greater range and could achieve higher altitudes. German military planners therefore were quick to seize upon the zeppelin as a platform for aerial bombardment—and not just for the occasional explosive device tossed overboard, but even for large-scale strategic bombardment.

 Words of WarStrategic bombardment is aerial bombardment on a large scale, typically directed at civilian targets, especially those involved in the production of war-related materiel. This program of bombardment is “strategic” because it is intended as a direct means of shortening a war.

In contrast to tactical bombardment, which is directed at military targets on the battlefield, strategic bombardment is undertaken against civilian targets, typically with the intention of destroying the enemy’s war industries and thereby shortening the war. Strategic bombing requires aircraft capable of carrying large numbers of bombs over great distances. The zeppelins, German planners hoped, could do just this. In the end, however, they proved ineffective at true strategic bombing and could do little more than carry out harassing raids over Great Britain and France. Flying at high altitude to avoid being shot down, the zeppelins were incapable of dropping bombs accurately.

At the outbreak of the war, however, the German army used some of the 10 military zeppelins then available not to attack major enemy cities, but to bombard garrison outposts and fortifications and for reconnaissance. After losing three zeppelins in daylight raids over fortified positions, however, the German army quickly abandoned the lighter-than-air craft as a weapon.

Yet the German navy remained enthusiastic. As discussed in Chapter 13, “A New Year and No Hope,” zeppelins under navy command bombarded London in 1915. Although the second zeppelin raid on the British capital, carried out on September 8, 1915, caused considerable damage, no nation (including Germany) possessed enough airships or sufficient aerial aiming technology to carry out a truly effective program of strategic bombing. Moreover, it was quite easy to defend against zeppelin raids. The British shot down the airships with antiaircraft guns as well as with fighter airplanes firing special incendiary bullets, which caused the zeppelins’ hydrogen to ignite and explode. Aside from enemy defenses, the zeppelins also had to contend with the weather. High winds, lightning storms, and the like were at least as deadly as bullets. Of the 73 zeppelins the German navy had, 53 were lost by 1918. Half the German army’s fleet of 52 also came to bad ends.

 Words of WarTactical bombardment is aerial bombardment of military targets at the front. Typically, tactical bombardment is on a relatively small or concentrated scale and is in direct support of ground operations.

With its great range and lifting capacity, the zeppelin seemed a ready-made platform for strategic bombing, but both sides soon moved to develop airplanes specifically designed for bombing missions. The first of these to see action was the French Voisin, a single-engine craft capable of achieving 85 miles per hour and carrying as much as 661 pounds of bombs. On August 14, 1914, barely two weeks into the war, the Voisin was used to bomb the zeppelin hangars at Metz-Frascaty.

Surprisingly, the perpetually backward Russian military was quick to develop a specialized force of bombers. Designed by Igor Sikorsky (who would later gain fame as the inventor of the first truly practical helicopter), the Ilya Muromets was an improvement on the inventor’s earlier design, the Russky Vityaz, the world’s first four-engine airplane. Built in 1913, the Ilya Muromets boasted a 100-foot biplane wingspan, accommodated a crew of five, and even included sleeping compartments for crew members. With a ceiling of 9,000 feet and a top speed of 85 miles per hour, it could remain aloft for five hours and could carry a bomb load of about 1,500 pounds. The airplane was defended by three or four machine guns.

The Ilya Muromets craft were among the most successful bombers of the war. They carried out some 400 missions over Germany and the Baltic states, yet suffered very few casualties.

Italy was next to build a bomber, the trimotor Caproni of 1915, capable of a swift 94.4 miles per hour and able to carry an almost 1,200-pounds bomb payload. Although lightly defended by only two machine guns, the bomber was successful enough to see service throughout the war.

Great Britain introduced more bomber types than any other combatant nation. The first two-engine Handley Page bomber appeared at the end of 1916 and could carry almost 1,800 pounds of bombs at 90 miles per hour. Early the next year, another Handley Page model carried the same capacity, but at a significantly improved 97.5 miles per hour.

 From the Front The ultimate in World War I zeppelin development was the LZ-70. Measuring 740 feet long, it could top 16,000 feet and had a spectacular range of 7,500 miles. Late in the war, it was shot down in flames.

By the end of the war, the Handley Page company introduced the mammoth V/1500 four-engine bomber capable of carrying a 7,500-pound payload in the form of thirty 250-pound bombs. Because it was introduced so late, however, this large craft saw no combat service in the war. In the meantime, though, the De Havilland firm produced two bombers, De Havilland 4 and 5, each high-speed (up to 120 miles per hour) craft with a four-bomb capacity. Other single-engine planes, the Bristol F.2A/B, the S.E. 5a, and the Sopwith Camel, were capable of fighter as well as bomber roles, although they were not suited to heavy strategic bombing.

Germany introduced two strategic bombers in 1916, the Freidrichshafen and the Gotha. Both were twin-engine planes capable of carrying 1,000 to 1,100 pounds of bombs and able to hit 87 miles per hour. The Gotha was the most widely used of the German strategic bombers, doing considerable damage to enemy supply depots and railheads behind the lines.

 From the Front The Germans also built a small number of highly advanced four-engine, all-metal bombers called Riesenflugzeug, or R-planes. Carrying a crew of seven, they could deliver a bomb payload of 4,000 pounds. Too heavy and ungainly to be very practical, few saw service.

Despite the array of bombers that the belligerents built, the craft were never produced in sufficient quantity to have a significant effect on the course and conduct of the war. While the Germans directed most of their attacks against the towns of southeastern England, ultimately inflicting only minor damage, the British concentrated with better effect on industrial targets, zeppelin facilities, and U-boat bases.


When the topic of World War I aerial warfare is mentioned, it is not likely that the subject of reconnaissance, zeppelins, or strategic bombing will come up—rather, attention turns to air-to-air combat between fighter planes, the so-called dogfight. From the ranks of the fighter pilots—a tiny, elite corps of men, each with a pitifully short life expectancy—came many of the war’s few truly popular heroes: René Fonck of France, Edward “Mick” Mannock of Great Britain, William Bishop of Canada, Eddie Rickenbacker of the United States, and Manfred von Richthofen of Germany. All of these became household names.

 Words of War A dogfight is the term generally used for air-to-air combat between fighter aircraft.

In a war whose every day produced casualties by the thousands, one-on-one aerial combat seems out of place and anachronistic, harking back to the days when one knight jousted against another on a “field of honor.” But while it is true that World War I aerial combat quickly acquired romantic associations, this fighting was born of practical necessity. With each passing week of stalemate on the Western Front, accurate artillery bombardment was seen as ever more important. Increasingly, aerial reconnaissance figured as a key to the precise placement, distribution, and aiming of artillery; therefore, the side that controlled the sky above the battlefield had a very significant advantage.

 Words of War In a pusher configuration, the aircraft’s propeller is behind the engine and creates a thrust that pushes the airplane forward.

From Revolver to Machine Gun

At first, reconnaissance pilots took random shots at each other with pistols. In more sophisticated two-man aircraft, the observer might arm himself with a rifle or, better yet, a shotgun.

In 1913, the year before the war, the British Vickers company introduced a pusher configuration aircraft, with its propeller behind the engine and equipped experimentally with a mounted machine gun operated by the observer, who sat in front of the pilot. This design was improved in 1915 as the Vickers F.B.5.

Gunbus—it was the first production aircraft specifically designed with air-to-air armament.

But the Vickers pusher design—as well as a subsequent French Voison pusher—was inherently inferior in performance, speed, and maneuverability to aircraft with a more conventional tractor configuration, with the propeller at the nose in front of the engine. Yet, if the propeller was at the nose, how could one devise a way to prevent the machine gun, firing through the rotation of the propeller, from hitting and damaging the props with catastrophic results?

 Words of War In a tractor configuration, the propeller is mounted in front of the engine, at the nose. It creates thrust and lift by directly accelerating the air that passes over the plane’s wings, in effect pulling the craft forward as a tractor pulls a trailor.

In 1913, German designer Franz Schneider had patented an interrupter mechanism, a device that synchronized the firing of the machine gun with the rotation of the prop, so that the bullets always passed safely between the turning blades. The German military showed no interest in the device, however. Also before the war, the French engineer, Raymond Saulnier experimented with an interrupter mechanism, but was unable to keep it from malfunctioning. He then turned instead to simply attaching triangular steel plates to the props, which would deflect bullets. In December 1914, French pilot Roland Garros approached Saulnier to install the deflector plates to his Morane-Saulnier monoplane. Garros’s plane crashed and was captured by the Germans, who turned his prop over to Dutch aircraft designer Anthony Fokker.

 Words of War A monoplane has a single set of wings, in contrast to the double-decker biplane.

The brilliant Fokker thought the deflectors crude and, by May 20, 1915, developed instead the first practical synchronized machine gun, which he fitted to his “Eindecker,” the Fokker E-III monoplane. Combined with the Eindecker’s high degree of maneuverability, Fokker’s interrupter gear gave the Germans a substantial period of air superiority in 1915.

Because the machine gun itself had to be rigidly mounted on the airplane’s fuselage to ensure the accuracy of the synchronization, it was aimed by pointing the entire plane in the desired direction and altitude. This meant that the pilot, the man in direct control of the aircraft, not an observer, had to operate the machine gun. The single-man fighter plane was born.

Coffins with Wings and Props

The two earliest planes specifically designed as fighters were the British Bristol Scout D (introduced in 1914) and the French Morane Type N (introduced in 1915). These planes were quickly outclassed by Germany’s Fokker E III or Eindecker, a highly maneuverable monoplane featuring two synchronized machine guns. From July until October 1915—a period dubbed by Allied pilots the “Fokker Scourge”—the Eindecker reigned supreme over the Western Front. Its presence accelerated development of the French Nieuport and the British De Havilland 2, which brought improvements in speed and maneuverability that matched the Eindecker.

From this point on, the air war largely became a race to produce planes with higher performance and maneuverability. Typically, improvements came first in engine design, with the object being the production of lighter, more efficient, and more powerful power plants. In turn, this spurred revisions of the airframe—the aircraft itself.

 From the Front By 1917, the average life expectancy of a pilot on the Western Front was three weeks. Late in the war, the Germans began issuing parachutes to their pilots, but British and French leaders persisted in refusing to issue them because they believed they would diminish the aggressive spirit of their pilots. To some extent, parachutes were also viewed as unreliable; although the parachutes themselves functioned well, harnesses and opening mechanisms left much to be desired.

Although aircraft speeds did not improve dramatically during the war, progressing from the 80-mile-per-hour range in 1914 to the 120-plus-mile-per-hour range by the end of the war, great strides were made in reliability and maneuverability. And a victorious dogfight depended almost entirely on the ability to outmaneuver the adversary.

Despite advances in design and technology, World War I aircraft ended the war the way they had entered it: as flying coffins. Most World War I fighter airplanes were built primarily of fabric stretched over a frame of light but reasonably sturdy wood. The fabric was treated with a kind of volatile varnish or shellac called dope, which stretched and smoothed the surface of wings and fuselage—and which also made the fabric and wood that much more flammable. Wherever possible, flight surfaces—wings and tail assemblies—were reinforced with wire cable.

Under the best of conditions, the structural and mechanical reliability of the planes was limited, especially when flying at high speeds and in tight maneuvers while being shot at. Mortality among pilots was high, and if the impact of a crash didn’t prove fatal, the fire that surely followed would.

Fighter Tactics

Air-to-air combat occurred on several of the war’s fronts but was most intense on the Western Front. In contrast to the way in which the air forces of World War II would be deployed, there was little unified strategic purpose motivating the air corps of the Great War other than to gain air superiority, which ensured a platform for accurate reconnaissance. Instead, they settled into a routine of launching a squadron from the base, or aerodrome, to patrol a given sector in search of enemy reconnaissance or fighter aircraft. When a recon airplane was sighted, it was shot down. When the patrol encountered an enemy fighter patrol, a dogfight would ensue, and ground troops would be treated to a display of spectacular maneuvering, bursts of gunfire, and flaming death.

 Voices of Battle “With one sentence, one can settle the topic: ‘Aerial Combat Tactics,’ namely: ‘I get within 50 meters of the enemy from behind, aim neatly, then the opponent falls.’ ”

—Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” German ace and top ace of the war

In the summer of 1916, the German High Command ordered air ace Oswald Boelcke to form the first Jagdstaffel, a squadron specializing in hunting and shooting down enemy aircraft. It was Boelcke who first articulated the eight basic principles of aerial combat:

  1. Always try to secure advantages before attacking; keep the sun behind you—and in the enemy’s eyes.
  2. Always carry through an attack when you have started it.
  3. Fire only at close range and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.
  4. Always keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.
  5. In any form of attack, it is essential to fight your opponent from behind.
  6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to evade his onslaught, but fly to meet it.
  7. When over the enemy’s lines, never forget your own line of retreat.
  8. Attack on principle in groups of four to six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats, take care that several pilots do not go for one opponent.

The Allies quickly developed similar tactics, and British squadron commander and ace “Mick” Mannock added the following:

  • Hide in clouds or the sun.
  • Attack with superior numbers.
  • Shoot first, ask questions later. It is better to shoot at a friendly plane by accident than to be caught off guard by an enemy patrol.

 From the Front The most famous defensive maneuver was the “Immelmann turn,” a half-loop with a half-roll on top. Another common lifesaving maneuver was the chandelle, a quick dive to gain speed followed by a very steep climbing turn.

Patrols usually flew in one of five formation patterns designed to facilitate attack while defending against surprise. Most attacks began with a dive on the enemy, typically from out of the sun. Cold steel nerves were indispensable because success depended on holding fire until the enemy was at very close range. If the pilot fired too soon, not only would the attack almost certainly miss, but, by alerting the prey, the hunter also might well find himself the hunted.

A fast dive always carried the attacker below the target, but using the momentum of the dive, a skilled pilot would quickly regain altitude for a renewed attack.

The spectacle of a dozen or so aircraft of opposing patrols climbing, turning, and diving to attack and avoid attack appeared to ground observers like a spectacular aerial ballet. The unit led by the most celebrated German ace, Manfred von Richthofen, was so adept at combat maneuvers—performed in planes that were not camouflaged, but defiantly painted in bright colors—that Allied pilots dubbed it the “Flying Circus.”

The fact is that pilots whose skills even approached that of a Richthofen or any of the other aces were rare. Mortality was so high that recruits were typically given their wings after little training and then rushed to the front to replace their fallen predecessors. They rarely had the opportunity to gain valuable experience by building up flying time in quiet sectors. This created a vicious cycle because new pilots were often shot down on their first or second patrol.

The Aces

If the killing of thousands day after day along an immobile trench line ceased to have meaning, the death of a few individuals in aerial combat duels somehow seemed more comprehensible. Of course, it was still death, but it was death in a contest between individuals rather than among masses. As if to underscore this, the French introduced a system of recognition of aces. A pilot achieved ace status after downing five enemy aircraft. Almost immediately, the Germans and the British also began programs of ace recognition.

 Words of War In World War I, an ace was a pilot who scored five confirmed victories (that is, kills).

Among the French aces, the most celebrated—indeed, worshiped and adored—was Georges Guynemer, who scored 54 victories before disappearing into a cloud bank on September 11, 1917, never to be seen again. Two other French aces, Charles Nungesser (45 victories) and René Fonck (75 victories), were chiefly responsible for creating the romantic, swashbuckling popular image of the air ace. An ex-prizefighter, Nungesser lived it up during his off-duty hours in the nightclubs of Paris, and he decorated each of his planes with a trademark black heart enclosing a skull, crossbones, a coffin, and candlesticks. Remarkably, the dashing Nungesser survived the war but was killed in 1927 when, shortly before the flight of Charles Lindbergh, he attempted a solo flight across the Atlantic.

Fonck, with 75 victories to his credit, was hailed as the Allied “Ace of Aces.” He made combat a personal matter when he set out to shoot down Kurt Wisseman, the German pilot who claimed credit for having downed Guynemer. A pilot of matchless daring and skill—twice, on May 9 and September 26, 1918, he downed a half-dozen planes in a day of flying—Fonck also survived the war. He died peacefully in Paris in 1953.

Unlike France and Germany, the British Royal Flying Corps officially played down the exploits of aces as showy and bad for general morale. British pilots were actively discouraged from personalizing their planes with distinctive insignia—though many did just this—and individual exploits were not generally reported to the press as they were in France and Germany. Nevertheless, Britain’s Royal Flying Corps also produced a crop of aces, the most prolific of whom were Edward “Mick” Mannock (73 victories) and William Bishop (72 victories), a Canadian. Mannock met his death in June 1918 when he fell victim to ground fire. Bishop survived the war and, after the Armistice, helped found the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The greatest of all aces was Germany’s Manfred von Richthofen, who scored 80 victories before he was shot down on April 21, 1918. Nicknamed the “Red Baron,” he painted his Albatross D-III biplane bright scarlet in 1917, then did the same for his later, better-known, Fokker triplane. Richthofen was adored throughout Germany and both feared and respected as an adversary by Allied pilots.

 Voices of Battle “One does not need to be a crack pilot or marksman, but only to have the courage to fly within the closest proximity of the opponent.”

—Manfred von Richthofen, on becoming an ace

Canadian pilot Roy Brown claimed credit for downing the Red Baron, but it is also possible that Australian ground gunners fired the fatal shots. The latter possibility was vehemently denied both by Richthofen’s German compatriots and by Allied fliers, who could not accept on behalf of Richthofen anything less “honorable” than death at the hands of another pilot. In any case, the Australian unit that recovered Richthofen’s body buried him with full military honors in Bertangles, France. The body was later reburied in Wiesbaden, Germany.

The United States produced one ace of signal fame, Edward Vernon “Eddie” Rickenbacker. Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1890, Rickenbacker developed an early passion for automobiles, which grew into a career as a pioneering professional race car driver. He participated in the first Indianapolis 500 and set an early speed record at Daytona Beach, Florida: 134 miles per hour. By 1916, he had earned national fame as the third-ranked American racer.

 Combatants Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen (1892–1918) was born of a noble family in Breslau. Enrolled in cadet school by his father, who wanted him to become an army officer, Richthofen was a poor student who showed little interest in anything other than gymnastics and horsemanship. At the outbreak of war, he was a cavalry lieutenant on the Eastern Front. When his regiment was posted to infantry duties in the trenches—a life Richthofen found intolerable—the young man obtained a transfer to the air service.

In the early months of German aerial warfare, two-man observation crews consisted of an enlisted pilot and an officer observer, rather like a working-class chauffeur and his upper-crust passenger. Richthofen, an officer, began his flying career as an observer but soon trained as a pilot. He received his license on December 25, 1915.

Richthofen joined air ace Oswald Boelcke’s fighter squadron in September 1916 and rapidly racked up one victory after another. In January 1917, Richthofen was given command of his own squadron and, on July 1, after receiving the coveted “Blue Max,” Germany’s highest valor award, he was put in command of the first large fighter formation—a unit of 40 planes. Just six days later, however, Richthofen was wounded in the head and was sent on an extended convalescent leave. German military authorities were in no hurry to return him to active duty because they saw him as a highly valuable morale-boosting instrument of propaganda.

Nevertheless, he did ultimately return to combat, leading his infamous “Flying Circus.” He was killed on April 21, 1918.

When America entered the war, Rickenbacker lobbied for the creation of a U.S. flying corps consisting of auto racers and mechanics. Although his idea was not seriously considered, he enlisted on May 25, 1917, and went to France as a sergeant driver in General John J. Pershing’s Motor Car Staff. A frequent passenger was Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell, pioneering proponent of American air power, who helped Rickenbacker get an assignment to flight school in France.

After joining the 94th Squadron—called the “Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron,” for its soon-to-be-famous insignia—Rickenbacker was promoted to officer status and proceeded to rack up the 26 victories, including many scored against Richthofen’s Flying Circus, that made him a multiple ace.

 From the Front Rickenbacker survived the war, returning to the United States as a popular hero. He worked first as an executive in the automobile industry and then in the airline industry. In 1938, he became president, general manager, and director of Eastern Airline. During World War II, he was a special adviser to Secretary of War Henry Stimson. On an inspection mission, his plane was forced down in the Pacific, and Rickenbacker led seven other survivors through a heroic 23-day ordeal on rafts. He died in 1973.

Lafayette Escadrille

Although Rickenbacker was a pioneer of American military aviation, the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron was not the first U.S. air combat presence in France. On April 20, 1916, well before the United States ended its neutrality to enter the war, the American Volunteer Squadron of the French Air Service—better known as the Lafayette Escadrille—went into operation and flew until February 18, 1918, when it was absorbed into the U.S. Air Service as the 103d Pursuit Squadron.

Thirty-eight American volunteers (and four Frenchmen) flew more than 3,000 missions over every sector of the Western Front, suffering a 30 percent casualty rate and scoring 39 confirmed victories and perhaps a hundred unconfirmed ones. In all, these figures are not impressive. Nevertheless, the symbolic impact of the Lafayette Escadrille was great. It demonstrated that, U.S. advocates of neutrality notwithstanding, truly “honorable” Americans were prepared to lay their lives on the line to defend democratic civilization against the dreaded “Hun.”

 From the Front The American Volunteer Squadron, the Lafayette Escadrille, was named after the Marquis de Lafayette, the young French nobleman who rendered General George Washington and the Continental Army invaluable service during the American Revolution.

Ground Attack

Air-to-air combat—the dogfight—was deadly, but it was perceived as inherently noble, something bright and clean and heroic in a dirty, brutal war. The fact is, however, that late in the war the airplane had begun to evolve into yet another engine of anonymous killing on a larger scale.

By 1917, both sides began producing planes specially modified for ground attack, the killing of troops at the front in the trenches. For example, the Sopwith Salamander, a modification of the famed Sopwith Camel air-to-air fighter, had an armored cockpit and two machine guns that fired downward, through the aircraft floor, at a fixed angle designed to rake enemy trenches while flying over them at low altitude. Very late in the war, the Germans produced such two-seater aircraft as the Hannover CL.III, armed with a forward-firing machine gun operated by the pilot, and a flexible machine gun that could be pointed downward, operated by an observer who also controlled racks of fragmentation grenades designed to be dropped on the trenches.

 Words of WarGround attack describes the use of aircraft against military personnel and other targets on the ground. Used in coordination with assault by ground troops, it is also called “close air support.”

The Germans used ground-attack aircraft at the Battle of Cambrai in November and December 1917 (see Chapter 21, “Allies Imperiled”), with very destructive results. At the end of the war, the German Junkers CL-I, made entirely of metal and well armored, proved to be the deadliest and most advanced ground-attack aircraft. However, it was introduced too late to see much combat or have any effect on the war’s outcome.

Still, the direction that air combat was taking had become clear to anyone willing to see it. The next war would not feature latter-day knights dueling in the clouds for the honor of their nations. The next war would use airplanes as yet another vehicle of instant, extensive, technologically sophisticated, and anonymous devastation.

The Least You Need to Know
  • The first use of aircraft in World War I was as bombers and, even more important, as platforms for reconnaissance.
  • The fighter plane developed first as a means of shooting down reconnaissance aircraft and then as a means of attacking other fighter aircraft.
  • Air-to-air combat, the dogfight, was widely seen as a noble contest between gallant adversaries, the best of whom earned legendary reputations as aces.
  • By the end of the war, both sides had begun developing a ground attack role for aircraft, transforming this instrument of “noble” combat into yet another means of delivering death on a large and indifferently brutal scale.

Part 5Doughboys

At the low point of Allied fortunes, in spring 1917, the United States declared war against Germany after having struggled for almost three years to remain neutral. These chapters tell how the United States mobilized for war and how General John J. Pershing fought both France and Britain to maintain the independence of the U.S. fighting force so that it would not be frittered away in fruitless defensive combat. Here are the first triumphs of the American doughboy and the emergence of such American heroes as Sergeant Alvin York and Captain Eddie Rickenbacker.

Part 5 takes the war through Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.