Warfare has changed a lot in the last century. Horses have become redundant, guns become reliable, machine guns become light enough to carry and bombs have become powerful enough to totally annihilate a small country if the guy with the button so chooses. But perhaps more significant than just the way hardware has changed is the way that warfare has changed itself; tactics and military structure have changed beyond all recognition compared to the pre-war era, and we must now fight wars whilst surrounded by a political landscape, at least in the west, that does not approve of open conflict. However, next year marks the 100th anniversary of a military innovation that not only represented massive hardware upgrade at the time, but that has changed almost beyond recognition in the century since then and has fundamentally changed the way we fight wars; the use of aeroplanes in warfare.
The skies have always been a platform to be exploited by the cunning military strategist; balloons were frequently used for messaging long before they were able to carry humans and be used for reconnaissance during the early 20th century, and for many years the only way of reliably sending a complicated message over any significant distance was via homing pigeon. It was, therefore, only natural that the Wright brothers had barely touched down after their first flight in ‘Flyer I’ when the first suggestions of a military application to such a technology were being made. However, early attempts at powered flight could not sustain it for very long, and even subsequent improvements failed to produce anything capable of carrying a machine gun. By the First World War, aircraft had become advanced enough to make controlled, sustained, two-person flight at an appreciable height a reality, and both the Army and Navy were quick to incorporate air divisions into their structures (these divisions in the British Armed Forces were the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service respectively). However, these air forces were initially only used for reconnaissance purposes and ‘spotting’ for artillery to help them get their eye in; the atmosphere was quite peaceful so far above the battlefield, and pilots and observers of opposing aircraft would frequently wave to one another during the early years of the war. As time passed and the conflict grew ever-bloodier, these exchanges became less friendly; before long observers would carry supplies of bricks into the air with them and attempt to throw them at enemy aircraft, and the Germans even went so far as to develop steel darts that could reportedly split a man in two; whilst almost impossible to aim in a dogfight, these darts were incredibly dangerous for those on the ground. By 1916 aircraft had grown advanced enough to carry bombs, enabling a (slightly) more precise method of destroying enemy targets than artillery, and before long both sides could equip these bombers with turret-mounted machine guns that the observers could fire on other aircraft with; given that the aircraft of the day were basically wire and wood cages covered in fabric, these guns could cause vast amounts of damage and the men within the planes had practically zero protection (and no parachutes either, since the British top brass believed this might encourage cowardice). To further protect their bombers, both sides began to develop fighter aircraft as well; smaller, usually single-man, planes with fixed machine guns operated by the pilot (and which used a clever bit of circuitry to fire through the propeller; earlier attempts at doing this without blowing the propeller to pieces had simply consisted of putting armour plating on the back of the propeller, which not infrequently caused bullets to bounce back and hit the pilot). It wasn’t long before these fighters were given more varied orders, ranging from trench strafing to offensive patrols (where they would actively go and look for other aircraft to attack). Perhaps the most dangerous of these objectives was balloon strafing; observation balloons were valuable pieces of reconnaissance equipment, and bringing them down generally required a pilot to navigate the large escort of fighters that accompanied them. Towards the end of the war, the forces began to realise just how central to their tactics air warfare had become, and in 1918 the RFC and RNAS were combined to form the Royal Air Force, the first independent air force in the world. The RAF celebrated its inception three weeks later when German air ace Manfred von Richthofen (aka The Red Baron), who had 80 confirmed victories despite frequently flying against superior numbers or hardware, was shot down (although von Richthofen was flying close to the ground at the time in pursuit of an aircraft, and an analysis of the shot that killed him suggests that he was killed by a ground-based AA gunner rather than the Canadian fighter pilot credited with downing him. Exactly who fired the fatal shot remains a mystery.)
By the time the Second World War rolled around things had changed somewhat; in place of wire-and-fabric biplanes, sleeker metal monoplanes were in use, with more powerful and efficient engines making air combat faster affair. Air raids themselves could be conducted over far greater distances since more fuel could be carried, and this proved well suited to the style of warfare that the war generated; rather than the largely unmoving battle lines of the First World War, the early years of WW2 consisted of countrywide occupation in Europe, whilst the battlegrounds of North Africa and Soviet Russia were dominated by tank warfare and moved far too fluidly for frontline air bases to be safe. Indeed, air power featured prominently in neither of these land campaigns; but on the continent, air warfare reigned supreme. As the German forces dominated mainland Europe, they launched wave after wave of long distance bombing campaigns at Britain in an effort to gain air superiority and cripple the Allies’ ability to fight back when they attempted to cross the channel and invade. However, the British had, unbeknownst to the Germans, perfected their radar technology, and were thus able to use their relatively meagre force of fighters to greatest effect to combat the German bombing assault. This, combined with some very good planes and flying on behalf of the British and an inability to choose the right targets to bomb on behalf of the Germans, allowed the Battle of Britain to swing in favour of the Allies and turned the tide of the war in Europe. In the later years of the war, the Allies turned the tables on a German military crippled by the Russian campaign after the loss at Stalingrad and began their own orchestrated bombing campaign. With the increase in anti-aircraft technology since the First World War, bombers were forced to fly higher than ever before, making it far harder to hit their targets; thus, both sides developed the tactic of ‘carpet bombing’, whereby they would simply load up as big a plane as they could with as many bombs as it could carry and drop them all over an area in the hope of at least one of the bombs hitting the intended target. This imprecise tactic was only moderately successful when it came to destruction of key military targets, and was responsible for the vast scale of the damage to cities both sides caused in their bombing campaigns. In the war in the Pacific, where space on aircraft carriers was at a premium and Lancaster Bombers would have been impractical, they kept with the tactic of using dive bombers, but such attacks were very risky and there was still no guarantee of a successful hit. By the end of the war, air power was rising to prominence as possibly the most crucial theatre of combat, but we were reaching the limits of what our hardware was capable of; our propellor-driven, straight wing fighter aircraft seemed incapable of breaking the sound barrier, and our bombing attacks couldn’t safely hit any target less than a mile wide. Something was clearly going to have to change; and next time, I’ll investigate what did.