April 9, 2020
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Cutting Germany’s Wings – The Dawn Of The Air Force I THE GREAT WAR Week 96

We all know that WW1 was the age of the flying
ace, the age of individual dogfights with the enemy, but the war in the skies had now
evolved to the point where we really saw what an air FORCE could do. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. The Italian Front exploded into action last
week as the Austro-Hungarian army began the Trentino Offensive. The Russians were on the
move in the Caucasus and in Persia, the Eastern and Western Fronts were fairly quiet – for
them – and American fighter pilots were flying for the French. Here’s what came
next. Well, at Verdun the Germans were still trying
to take the Mort Homme on the left bank of the Meuse, but the main action this week was
on the right. The French had scheduled a new offensive there
for May 22nd to retake Fort Douaumont. Now, the day before, French General Charles Mangin
had gone to Fort Moulainville and asked the commander there how best to take a fort. He
was asked what he was planning on using, and he said 370mm mortars, but since Fort Moulainville
had been under bombardment for ten weeks by German 420s and had not fallen, Mangin was
told that they were completely inadequate. But he did have, for the initial bombardment,
over 300 guns, including four of the 370s and what he set off – over five days – was
the greatest French barrage so far at Verdun and the shells did serious damage, especially
to any German troops that had been out in the open. They flowed into Fort Douaumont
and filled the hospitals, but the dust and fumes from the exploding shells made the air
in the fort close to unbreathable. The signal station and its operators were obliterated;
the observation turrets were knocked out of action. The generator that supplied the fort
with electric light was crushed by sandbags, plunging the interior into darkness, but still
not a crack was made in the main body of the fort. The commander of Fort Moulainville had
been right. Half an hour before the subsequent infantry
assault, two German shells fell on the French trenches. That might not sound so much, but
what it meant was that the Germans had the range and were waiting for the French to show
their heads, pretty impressive considering that French aircraft had destroyed five out
of six German observation balloons. So the attack began, and a murderous German counter
barrage swept across the French lines. Whole battalions of the 129th Regiment – chosen
to actually take the fort – were wiped out, but still, what remained of the regiment charged
fearlessly and in just 11 minutes the Frenchmen had reached the fort. In half an hour, the
French had taken three quarters of the fort’s superstructure. A small contingent of Frenchmen penetrated
the actual fort and reached the main east-west passage and it really looked like the Fort
was about to change hands again, but a German Jäger squad turned up, forced the Frenchmen
back, and set up a machine gun as a deterrent, so for the rest of the day the fighting was
only in the outer tunnels, and slowly, the French were repulsed. Outside, however, the French had mounted their
own machine gun in a position that overlooked the whole superstructure and mowed down repeated
German sallies. Alistair Horne writes, “50 men of the 20th regiment charged it, 33 were
mown down. Seventy Jägers tried their hand; 15 returned. Of 40 Leibgrenadiers, only a
couple crawled back into the fort.” But the situation was against the French.
By the afternoon of the 23rd, the 129th was cut off and running out of ammunition and
the Germans were sending reinforcements into the fort. They brought in a heavy mine-thrower
that night and when dawn came it had been installed less than 100 meters from the French
machine gunners, but invisible to them. It lobbed eight explosive torpedoes and then
the Germans jumped out on the shattered survivors. That was the end. The French had failed to
retake Douaumont. The German losses had been high, the French
devastating and far higher. Mangin was withdrawn from the sector in disgrace and French morale
at Verdun reached a new low. I mentioned that French aircraft had destroyed
five observation balloons? Let’s look at the sky for a minute. Just think, under two years ago empires had
gone to war, most of them having only a few dozen, or maybe a hundred aircraft total,
and if you look at those planes, the French Bleriots cruised at 80 km/hour and took 90
minutes to climb to 2,000 meters, and pilots threw steel darts at each other or shot with
handguns, and you can see the leaps and bounds in technology that just two years had brought.
One of the biggest was Dutchman Anthony Fokker’s synchronization gear in 1915, so a pilot could
fire a machine gun through his propeller and aim the plane to aim the gun. This gave the
Germans control of the skies for months, and when you add in the fact that their machine
guns could hold 1,000 rounds without reloading, and the French magazines held 47, well, you
get the idea. But the age of the flying ace had begun, and
the death-defying pilots were the darlings of the press and the heroes of the nation.
When Max Immelmann was killed, there was one Crown Prince and 20 generals at his funeral
and Oswald Boelcke would receive nearly 1,000 admiring letters a month. Those airmen that
could survive also made a lot more money than the average soldiers, but make no mistake:
they had a much shorter lifespan than the men on the ground. By the spring of 1916, the French had begun
to use new Nieuport fighters at Verdun and could finally really give the Germans a run
for their money, and to simply quote Alistair Horne once again, “Verdun was to spell the
end of the solitary ace and single combat. It was at Verdun that the word air FORCE first
began to have a meaning.” When Verdun began, the French were outnumbered
in the sky five to one, Germany had an aerial net of 168 planes, the largest ever seen,
but they didn’t use it so effectively. The entire force was devoted to closing the airspace
above German lines, but with 24 hour patrols of each sector by two planes at a time, and
limited fuel carrying ability, it would’ve taken over 700 planes to really do the job.
And Colonel Barés from the French Air Service managed to bring in 120 planes within a week
as well as a galaxy of top French pilots, and many of them – like Charles Nungesser,
Jean Navarre, and Georges Guynemer – formed the Escadrille (Groupe) de Cigognes, a real
air force, and when the Cigognes took off they plowed right through the scattered German
net. The French were suddenly on top in the air at Verdun. And by May they had 226 planes there and German
Army Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn was either unwilling or unable to match that.
The French flew in concentrated formations, as many as 12 fighters to protect two observation
planes, and their advantage showed this week as French planes firing new rockets developed
by a naval officer shot down five of six observation balloons in one day, an incredible feat. But Verdun was still a stalemate on the ground.
One front that was in motion, though, was the Italian Front. Where the Austrians were attacking through
the mountains. The Italians couldn’t believe they’d do it, but they did, and on the 20th,
Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf extended his offensive east to the Sugana
Valley and the Austrians pushed out onto the Asiago Plateau. But though they were on the
move, the further they moved on, the smaller their chances of reaching the sea grew. They
didn’t have a very good supply chain, they weren’t well-stocked with munitions, and
even in the second week men suffered from exhaustion, but still they advanced. They
reached the third line of the Italian defenses and overcame it, and as the week came to an
end and Italian Chief of Staff Luigi Cadorna formed a new army Corps to try and defend
Asiago, the Austrians captured Arsiero, just a few kilometers from the plains. And we come to the end of the week, with the
Austrians on the move, the Italians in trouble, and the French on top in the skies over Verdun,
but failing on the ground. One non-incredible feat that failed to happen
this whole spring at Verdun is something that seems obvious in hindsight. Why, when the
Germans had initial air superiority, did they not bomb the French supply lines to Verdun?
Heck, they even had zeppelins that flew out of a fighters’ reach, so why not bomb the
one French road – the sacred road – that supplied basically all of Verdun? It’s one
of the great questions of the war. Even a few bombing runs would’ve blocked the road
with wrecked vehicles, but Germany didn’t do that and I’m going to leave you today
with the totally unsatisfactory explanation of the Chief of the Luftstreitkräfte, what
would one day be the known as the Luftwaffe, the chief himself, General Ernst von Hoeppner,
“We did not exactly know what should be required of aviation at Verdun.” If you are interested in aviation and the
flying aces of the war, click here for our episode about Billy Bishop aka. Hell’s Handmaiden.
We also have some great books about flying aces and aviation in our amazon store where
we get a commission if you buy a book there. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Elmar
Sauer – thanks to Elmar’s financial support we were able to improve our map and animations.
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Tony wyaad