The RFC, and the RAF which replaced it when the two air services RFC and RNAS joined on 1 April 1918, had two primary objectives – photographic reconnaissance and artillery observation. Scout aircraft would be employed to shoot down the German photographic reconnaissance planes and to protect the RFC/RAF photographic missions. Once a scout pilot had shot down five enemy planes, he became an ‘ace’. It was the same for all three national air forces, but the RFC claims for kills far exceeded the number of German planes shot down.
The Allied offensives of 1917 were designed to capitalise on the perceived damage done to the German army. 2,000 pilots were trained in the UK and sent out to complete the squadrons required for observation and artillery support. ‘Wastage’ as these pilots were shot down or sent home for rest, had to be maintained. On average, artillery observation or bombing pilots would last sixteen weeks before being shot down, pilots with scout squadrons only lasted ten weeks. This required over 100,000 people in the UK alone. For every four pilots who went into training, only three reached France.
By 1918, with the German attack expected on the Western Front, bombing behind enemy lines also became an important mission for the RFC. As Major General Hugh Trenchard, commanding officer of the RFC, stated, ‘Extensive bombing attacks, to hinder the enemy’s preparations, inflict casualties upon his troops and disturb their rest’ was an important task for the RFC. He also added ‘Attacking the enemy’s reinforcements a mile or two behind the assaulting line, attacking the enemy’s detraining and debussing points, transport on roads, artillery positions and reserves’ were also primary objectives.
Of the aces of 1917, Richthofen had proved to be the most outstanding. He not only had flying skill but his longevity and sound tactical sense led him into a leadership role par excellence. He was an excellent mentor and teacher to his men, teaching them the skills for survival. He himself had been shot down in July 1917, luckily surviving a skull fracture during a dog fight and landing his aircraft safely. He was persuaded to take leave between September and November 1917. When he returned, his kill rate continued to rise but at a slower rate as if he was aware of his own mortality. His advice to the young pilots was very simple: ‘I approach the enemy from behind to within 50 metres, I aim carefully, fire and the enemy falls.’ Only one member of the flight was allowed to fire at any one time; if the attacker had gun trouble, then it was the turn of the next pilot etc until the target was shot down. His tactics were simple, direct and deadly – all they required was the courage to approach the target so closely.
In the RFC, there was no one to match Richthofen. Two aces, Captain Albert Ball and Captain William Bishop (both of whom won VCs) were ‘lone wolves’; they were inspirational fliers but unable to tutor young pilots or pass on their skills. Captain Edward Mannock was very different: once he conquered his own nerves he became an excellent flier, one who could pass on his skills. He was approached by an Australian squadron within the RFC when they realised they were not getting any kills. He went over to their mess and after several pep talks, their kill rate increased dramatically. The most important maxim for Mannock was ‘Gentlemen, always above; seldom on the same level; never underneath.’
Mannock was not the only man pushing these tactics, gradually the overall doctrine preached by Mannock and other aces spread through the whole of the RFC.
The other outstanding ace in the RFC was Captain James McCudden (another VC winner), the ultimate ‘professional’ air fighter. He had joined the RFC as a mechanic but, once he became a pilot, he soon acquired the ‘ace’ title and, after a time as an instructor, returned to France as a flight commander. He paid attention to every detail, his engine was checked and tuned to give maximum power, he never took off without checking and rechecking his machine guns to avoid mis-firing of jamming, and he always carefully aligned his gun sights. McCudden’s shooting was spectacular: a combination of hand-eye co-ordination, rigorous scrutiny of his weapons and endless practice.
Before the Spring Offensive of 1918, the German Air Service were given two tasks: to prevent the RFC from viewing the build up with their probing ‘eyes in the sky’, and to secure reconnaissance of the British defence lines. This was not as easy as it might seem: the Albatross scouts which had contributed so much to ‘Bloody April’ in 1917 were well matched by the ‘new’ (not new designs but the 1917 models with the teething problems eradicated) scouts now in service with the RFC. The SE5 and the Sopwith Camel were the work horses, both well armed, well powered and very light - hence very versatile in a dogfight, especially as they had a flying time of 150 minutes opposed to the 90 minutes with the Albatross. The one advantage the German Rumpler and LVG reconnaissance planes had over the SE5 was height: they could fly at 21,000 feet, a thousand feet higher than SE5s or Camels. McCudden sorted this out by fitting his engine with non-standard high compression pistons and trimming the weight of the plane. The result was a vast increase in his kill rate, he exceeded 50 kills by February 1918. The disadvantages at flying at this height were twofold: coldness and lack of oxygen. They both contributed to poor assessment of hazards and McCudden started taking more and more risks.
When the Kaiserschlacht opened on the 21 March 1918, the fog affected both sides: the German Air Service could not judge how far the infantry had penetrated; and the RFC could not act as artillery observers. Once the fog lifted, the RFC scouts were instructed to strafe the columns of infantry and artillery which were now moving across open country.
The Spring Offensive also saw the end of the Aces from 1917. Richthofen was shot down and killed on 21 April (the day after he shot down his 80th kill) following a potential victim too close to the ground. This loss of the Aces continued until November 1918.
When not used in offensives, the RAF continued to harass the German withdrawal, machine gunning and bombing the lines of withdrawing troops and artillery. The last casualties of the RAF were two pilots of 46 Squadron who collided after strafing a column on 10 November. McCudden died after a flying accident in July, his tally was 57 kills. Mannock was shot down and killed by ground fire the same month; he had achieved 61 kills.
The loss of the Aces had no effect on the RAF because hundreds of new pilots were now in action. The tactics and skills pioneered by the Aces had been passed on within the squadrons. The RAF was now part of the all arms battle and, as the battle of Amiens opened in August 1918, the RAF had 800 planes in operation – reconnaissance, scouts and bombers.
Reference: Peter Hart ‘Aces Falling’, 2007
Contributed by: Peter Palmer