Discover more about the War in the Air
The War in the Air
Military aviation was in its infancy at the outbreak of war. The British formed the RFC in 1912, and the RNAS in early 1914, with aeroplanes that were unreliable, expensive and fragile. In the earliest battles, their main role was valuable reconnaissance, but as the trench lines of the Western Front were formed, observation for artillery became crucial. Tethered balloons were linked to gun batteries by telephone cables, and observers in aircraft reported back through rudimentary radio sets, helping to direct gunners on the ground. The development of aerial photography provided vital intelligence about enemy positions.
Vulnerable balloons and slow reconnaissance aircraft had to be protected from the enemy, and pilots began to actively pursue and attack their enemies with pistols, machine guns and Mills bombs. In the summer of 1915, the German manufacturer Fokker perfected a French design enabling front-mounted machine guns to fire through an aircraft's propellers, synchronizing with the turn of the blades. This advantage resulted in what airmen referred to as the 'Fokker scourge' into early 1916, until Allied technology matched the advance.
Photographic plates being handed to the gunner of a DH4 aircraft, Serny airfield, February 1917. IWM Q 11980.
During the Somme offensive of 1916, Commonwealth pilots sought to fight over enemy territory and attack infantry troops in the trenches, and many were killed between July and November 1916. In the spring of 1917, during the Battle of Arras, well-organised and tactically astute German fighter groups, known as 'circuses', caused heavy casualties among the novice pilots who had replaced those lost the previous year. Eventually, advances in design and industrial production created new aircraft for the Allies, including the S.E.5, the Sopwith Camel, and the French-built Spad, which helped to give Commonwealth pilots a numerical and technological advantage over their German counterparts.
In April 1918, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service merged to create a new Royal Air Force. By this time, the battle in the air was being fought ferociously by technologically advanced aeroplanes operating in large formations. Although their primary role throughout the war was to support ground forces, pilots on both sides increasingly used bombs and explosives to attack supply lines and industrial facilities. Some of the heaviest losses suffered by the RAF occurred the fiercely contested final months of the war when it possessed some several thousand front-line aircraft and up to 100,000 personnel.
Ground and air crew with their Handley Page O/400 bombers, Coudekerque field near Dunkirk, April 1918. IWM Q 12033.
Pilots, air and ground crew from across the Commonwealth served during the war in many theatres, from Salonika and Gallipoli to the Middle East. Fighter aces on the Western Front continued to be portrayed in propaganda as 'knights of the air', but in reality early ideas of chivalry soon gave way to violence just as ruthless as that experienced on the ground. Their war was physically and psychologically demanding, and human or mechanical error often had fatal consequences. Flying was among the most dangerous forms of service, and half of all Commonwealth pilots had become casualties by the war's end.