#AirWarBooks – Ashleigh Brown

#AirWarBooks – Ashleigh Brown

Editorial Note: In the next instalment of our Air War Books series, Ashleigh Brown discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped her writing as an air power historian.

Our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney asked me to contribute my top ten air war books – those that have influenced and shaped my own approach to the topic. Catching me in the midst of PhD research, this list clearly shows that my interest primarily centres on the First World War.

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Michael Molkentin, Fire in the Sky: The Australian Flying Corps in the First World War (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2010). Michael Molkentin’s Fire in the Sky was the first military aviation book I ever read. In many ways, this book is responsible for moving my interest from the ground war to the air war, which ultimately led to my PhD research. In the first effort to revise Cutlack’s official history volume on the AFC, Molkentin presents a thoroughly researched and highly readable account of the efforts of Australians in the air during the First World War. Importantly, in doing so, Molkentin places the AFC in its rightful context within wider British air operations. This book, along with his centenary history volume, Australia and the War in the Air, is the authoritative account of the AFC

James Streckfuss, Eyes All Over: Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War (Oxford: Casemate Publishers, 2016). Before the outbreak of the First World War, the predicted purpose of military aviation was reconnaissance. Accordingly, the focus in the opening years of war was reconnaissance, aerial combat being seen as necessary to ensure that this could be carried out uninhibited. Even with the creation of dedicated fighter squadrons, reconnaissance remained a core task for the air services throughout the war. James Streckfuss captures the importance of reconnaissance and details its progression by explaining early developments in Britain and the American perspective. This book expertly describes the intricacies and difficulties of carrying out aerial reconnaissance.

James Pugh, The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918 (New York: Routledge, 2017). The advantage found in having control of the air was recognised early in the First World War. The primary purpose of the RFC was to support ground forces through reconnaissance, photography, bombing missions, and artillery assistance; achieving superiority in the air was considered necessary to provide this support. James Pugh’s authoritative work discusses the development and application of air power over the Western Front, demonstrating the approach to obtaining and retaining aerial superiority (or control of the air). In doing so, Pugh rationally and expertly analyses the offensive policy (too often attributed solely to Hugh Trenchard), explaining how it was devised in conjunction with the French air services.

Malcolm Cooper, The Birth of Independent Air Power: British Air Policy in the First World War (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986). The high command of the RFC and RAF, and the political context of the air war, is complex, to say the least. Malcolm Cooper explains the various changes that took place at this level and details the development of the air war from this perspective. Cooper provides important context for understanding the execution of the air war, importantly contributing to the historiographical movement away from the view of First World War air power being exclusively a tactical concern.

Dennis Haslop, Early Naval Air Power: British and German Approaches (New York: Routledge, 2018). Dennis Haslop presents a comparative study of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Imperial German Naval Air Service, highlighting many striking similarities in the experiences of the two. This includes discussions of inter-service rivalry experienced by both the British and German air services and movements towards unification to create a single air service in each military. In other instances, discussions about the creation of the RAF from a naval perspective tend to present it as a hostile takeover of the RNAS rather than the amalgamation and unification of the two air services. Haslop avoids this, instead he presents a measured and factual account of this important part of Britain’s air power history. (N.B. You can read Ashleigh’s review of Haslop’s book here)

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Richard Overy, RAF: The Birth of the World’s First Air Force (New York: Norton & Company, 2018). Richard Overy’s RAF provides an overview of Britain’s air war leading up to 1918, the events that led to the creation of the RAF, the process of achieving this, and the post-war struggle to keep it as a separate service. Although Overy does not engage with all the complexities of the air war in this relatively short book, he presents an excellent overview in the form of a very readable narrative.

Arthur Henry ‘Harry’ Cobby, High Adventure (Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens, 1943). In the years following the First World War, many pilots wrote memoirs detailing their war experience. Among those to do so was Australian pilot Arthur Henry – or Harry – Cobby. Cobby was the leading fighter ace of the AFC, boasting 29 victories during his time with No. 4 Squadron. In High Adventure, he presents a captivating account of his war in the air that I would recommend to anyone interested in how the AFC’s pilots fought the air war on a day-to-day basis.

Charles Rumney Samson, Fights and Flights: A Memoir of the Royal Naval Air Service in World War I (Nashville: The Battery Press, 1990). Continuing with the theme of memoirs, Air Commodore Charles Rumney Samson’s Fights and Flights details his experiences in positions of command in the RNAS. Among these was his involvement in the Gallipoli campaign, in which he led No. 3 Squadron RNAS which was responsible for reconnaissance over the Gallipoli peninsula and Dardanelles straits. Samson’s squadron operated over Gallipoli in the months leading up to the landing of ground forces, remained in support of the land campaign, and supported the eventual evacuation. Although only a portion of the book, this is an important account of the Gallipoli campaign from the air and captures the early contribution of the RNAS in the First World War.

Frederick Sykes, Aviation in Peace and War (London: E. Arnold & Co., 1922). Aviation in Peace and War details Frederick Sykes’ thoughts on the development and use of air power before, during, and after the First World War. Sykes discusses his pre-war thoughts on the potential use of aviation, the Military and Naval Wings of the RFC, technology and tactics, the offensive policy, and how he saw air power progressing after the war. Sykes is somewhat of a controversial character in the wartime RFC, particularly due to his strained relationship with David Henderson and Hugh Trenchard, and this book provides a valuable insight into his involvement in early British air power.

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Peter Dye, The Bridge to Airpower: Logistic Support for Royal Flying Corps Operations on the Western Front, 1914-18 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015). Peter Dye’s The Bridge to Airpower considers the evolution of First World War air power through a study of logistics on the Western Front. This thoroughly researched account allows for a greater understanding of the difficulties encountered in waging the air war, specifically due to problems sourcing airframes and aero-engines, both in sufficient amounts and of a high quality. Dye also discusses the changing logistic requirements in line with the changing nature of the air war and presents an impressive collection of statistics to show the evolution of British air power during the war.

Ashleigh Brown is the Social Media Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Her thesis focuses on aviation command in the British air arms during the First World War. It considers developments across the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of command, extending the learning curve theory to the air war. Ashleigh is a researcher for the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor, where her focus is Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan between 2005 and 2010. Her research interests include the First World War, recent conflicts, air power, and military command. Ashleigh can be found on Twitter at: @ash__brown.

Header image: A group of pilots of No. 32 Squadron RFC at Beauval in 1916. Behind them is an Airco DH.2 biplane. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Armageddon and OKRA: Australia’s air operations in the Middle East a century apart

#BookReview – Armageddon and OKRA: Australia’s air operations in the Middle East a century apart

Reviewed by Dr Peter Layton

Lewis Frederickson, Armageddon and OKRA: Australia’s Air Operations in the Middle East a Century Apart. Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2020. Tables. Illustrations. Bibliography, Index. Pbk. 231 pp.

Armageddon and OKRA is the first in a planned series about the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) air campaigns being compiled as part of the RAAF’s 100th-anniversary celebrations. The RAAF’s Chief of Air Force (CAF) intends for the series’ works to be ‘readable, well-illustrated, educative and enduring’ (p. 3). In the main, Armageddon and OKRA ably meets these ambitions.

The book though carries additional burdens in aiming not just to market the RAAF to the Australian public but also to contribute to the Air Force’s professional military education and be of interest to serious academic researchers. It would be difficult for any work to satisfy such a diverse audience completely. Given this split, this review discusses Armageddon and OKRA from both a reader’s viewpoint and a military organisational perspective.

Armageddon and OKRA is split into two main parts. Part one examines Australian air power during the First World War in the Middle East between 1915 and 1919. The principal focus is on the operations of No.1 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) during the British capture of Palestine and Syria from the Ottoman Turks in 1917-1918. ‘Armageddon’ in the title refers to the Battle of Megiddo in late September 1918 in which the No. 1 Squadron fought. This English language word comes from the Ancient Greek name for Mount Megiddo, subsequently used in the Christian Bible’s Old Testament.

Part two then moves forward a hundred years to 2014-2018 and the US-led coalition operations to support the Iraqi Government to defeat Islamic State (ISIS). Part two’s principal focus is the small RAAF Air Task Group deployed for this task as part of the larger Australian Defence Force’s Operation OKRA, and which involved (amongst others) No.1 Squadron again. This is a rather elegant symmetry that perhaps was not made as much use of as could have been.

The involvement of the RAAF and its predecessor, the AFC in these two periods was at the tactical level of war and accordingly, the book’s main focus centres around squadron operations. Part one provides a comprehensive overview that nicely relates the tactical to the strategic level, the air activities undertaken, the various aircraft Australian’s were trained on and flew in operations, maintenance aspects and the air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons used. In this part, No.1 Squadron’s use of the Bristol F.2b Fighter in 1918 features prominently, including the destruction of a large Turkish ground force that the unit trapped in the Wadi Fara gorge. Also notable is the attention paid to including the opposing German squadrons, particularly FA300, and how they impacted No.1 Squadron. Wars involve two sides, however; many histories overlook this interdependence.

No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps next to their Bristol FB1 fighters, at Mejdel. The officer in the foreground (with stick) is Lieutenant-Colonel R. Williams, D.S.O., commanding. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Part two is somewhat different. Early on, there is a detailed examination of the command-and-control arrangements for OKRA. The naming protocols are quite arcane for the casual reader, not unsurprisingly as their origin lies in the demands of automated messaging systems not in easy human comprehension. This then moves into several short chapters that discuss the daily air operations as seen at the squadron-level by OKRA’s deployed air units. These units flew the F/A-18 ‘Classic’ Hornet fighter/bomber, the F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter/bomber, the E-7A Wedgetail airborne warning and control aircraft and the KC-30A air-to-air refuelling tanker.

By the time the reader reaches these final chapters, it is apparent that CAF’s aims to be ‘readable, well-illustrated, educative and enduring’ has been achieved. In Australia, the book is keenly priced while its excellent line drawings of aircraft and numerous photographs add to the overall appeal. Some may argue over ‘enduring,’ however, the second part of the book offers a level of detail of the RAAF’s part in OKRA that is presently unequalled. In particular, future historians of these air operations will value this book because it gives the reader an insight into the rhythm and grind of daily squadron life during operations.

On the other hand, in meeting CAF’s other dictum, the book falls a bit short for the professional or academic reader. It is not – nor was intended to be – a critical analysis of the RAAF’s air operations in these two periods. The book dwells on the positives and only rarely and rather briefly notes any possible negatives. There are also reoccurring lapses into hagiography. Of the two parts of the book, the second is the most impacted. There is room left for a definitive, comprehensive history of the RAAF during OKRA.

In thinking about future works, the elegant symmetry of parts one and two was noted earlier. In reading the book, the more critical reader might like to assess the similarities and differences between No.1 Squadron operating as part of the British Empire and then 100 years operating as part of the American ‘empire’. In the First World War, No. 1 Squadron and Australians were more broadly considered part of the British Empire; they were simply English people born offshore. It is unsurprising the future Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams, later the ‘father of the RAAF,’ ended the war commanding in battle the Royal Air Force’s 40 Wing, which was overwhelming a British entity.

During OKRA, there is a much greater separation between the Americans and their foreign air force partners; the later provide tactical level forces to use as the US determines. However, through its astute alliance management process, the American empire has shaped foreign air forces to be fully and immediately interoperable with US forces regarding doctrine, equipment, support, and training. In contrast, in the British Empire’s war, Australia provided people to Britain who needed to be trained, equipped and, later in battle, logistically supported. For Australian’s, the British Empire was more collegiate, but the modern-day American one is arguably shrewder. Armageddon and Okra’s author, Lewis Frederickson, has written a fine, relevant analysis on Australia’s First World War experience for those wishing to explore such issues further.[1]

Two KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport aircraft sit together at the main air operating base in the Middle East Region on Operation OKRA. (Source: ADF)

Finally, it is worth discussing the book from a military organisational perspective. The book’s forward sets out CAF’s intentions for the series. These are not just laudable but noteworthy in breaking from the last 20 years of RAAF development. In these earlier periods, RAAF and other Australian Service chiefs stressed teamwork, and especially loyalty, over critical thinking.[2] This is a recognised problem for small professional military forces which lack the scale to be able to be ‘broad churches’ that can include disruptors.[3] In this series, and in his new Air Force Strategy, CAF now appears interested in setting off down this path.[4] If so, later books will need to be more analytical, including engaging in constructive criticism. It is uncertain if this will be possible or acceptable.

Armageddon and Okra is an excellent value read that makes a useful contribution to RAAF history. It is particularly important and valuable in breaking new ground on the RAAF’s participation in OKRA against ISIS. Overall Armageddon and Okra will be of interest to the general public, military enthusiasts and undergraduates undertaking strategic studies courses.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and a RUSI (UK) Associate Fellow. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. Author of the book Grand Strategy, his posts, articles and papers may be read here. He was also once a navigator on No.1 Squadron RAAF flying F-111Cs.

Header Image: Centenary tail art on a  F/A-18F Super Hornet of No. 1 Squadron RAAF at the main air operating base in the Middle East Region during Operatyion OKRA. (Source: ADF)

[1] Lewis Frederickson, ‘The Development of Australian Infantry on the Western Front 1916-1918: An Imperial model of training, tactics and technology’ (PhD Thesis, UNSW Canberra, 2015)

[2] Peter Layton, ‘Does Australia need thinking ANZACs?,’ The Strategist,, 27 February 2014.

[3] Peter Roberts and Tony King, ‘Is the Era of Manoeuvre Warfare Dead?,’ Western Way of War: Episode 30, London: RUSI, 24 December 2020.

[4] Royal Australian Air Force, Air Force Strategy (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2020).

The Downfall of the Red Baron: Lessons Learned from the First World War ‘Ace of Aces’

The Downfall of the Red Baron: Lessons Learned from the First World War ‘Ace of Aces’

By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer

Baron Manfred von Richthofen was killed in air combat on 21 April 1918. He was unequalled in having shot down 80 enemy aircraft in aerial combat during the First World War to become the most famous ‘Ace of Aces’ in the early history of air combat. He was the pride of the German Imperial Army and respected by military aviation historians as the ‘Red Baron.’ A study of Richthofen’s aerial victories highlights the importance of critical thinking to identify and repeat the rules for success in aerial dogfighting. Evidence-based analyses of his behaviours and medical forensics in the months before his death indicate how the war may have been exacting an increasing toll on his judgement and decision-making abilities. The combination of seemingly discrete events that occurred during on 21 April triggered his abnormal behaviours and poor decisions, which had an accumulative effect that led to his ultimate downfall.

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Flying officers attached to Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr Von Richthofen’s squadron, Jasta 11, c. April 1917. Richthofen himself is seated in the Albatros D.III. aircraft. From left to right: standing: unidentified (possibly Leutnant Karl Allmenroeder); Hans Hintsch; Vizfeldwebel Sebastian Festner; Leutnant Karl Emil Schaefer; Oberleutnant Kurt Wolff; Georg Simon; Leutnant Otto Brauneck. Sitting: Esser; Krefft; Leutnant Lothar von Richthofen, younger brother of Manfred. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Manfred von Richthofen and Learning Lessons

The British called him the ‘Red Baron’, the French scorned him as the ‘le diable rouge’ (Red Devil) while his 1917 autobiography was called Der Rote Kampfflieger, which broadly translates as the ‘Red Battle Flyer.’[1] F.M. Cutlack, the official historian of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), described him as the ‘star of stars in the German Air Force.’[2] On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a Royal Flying Corps Sopwith Camel low over enemy-controlled territory, breaking one of his fundamental air combat maxims, and was fatally wounded. Until then, Richthofen had strictly followed Dicta Boelcke and his critical-thinking of air combat to be scorned, feared, and respected as the highest scoring air ace of the First World War.[3]

The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 182.

One of the reasons behind his significant success in air combat was his adherence to doctrinal maxims that guided his judgements in deciding when and how he would enter an action in the battlespace and engage a target. The Dicta Boelcke was named after their developer: Oswald Boelcke, Germany’s first air ace, with a total of forty victories. While early aircraft commanders were still seeking to understand roles for aircraft as the newest war machines to enter the battlespace, Boelcke is recognised as being one of the first fighter aces to apply critical thinking to air combat. Boelcke drew on his observations in air combat, reviewed his successes and failures, and critically analysed them to identify the critical decision points, ethical behaviours, and practical tactics that he considered would lead to repeated successes in the air. Boelcke tested and evaluated his air combat rules before recommending them as ‘rules for success’ that should be applied by other German pilots when flying into air combat as individuals or as a group in a squadron.

Boelcke promoted his lessons-learned as dicta to increase the chance of success in air combat by the pilots under his command, especially those who were new and inexperienced. His aerial warfighting principles were endorsed by the German Army to all its airmen, as Dicta Boelcke. After Richthofen was assigned to serve in Boelke’s squadron, Boelke became Richthofen’s mentor, instructor, squadron commander, and close friend. Richthofen became a keen practitioner of Dicta Boelcke.

We were all beginners. None of us had had a success so far. Consequently, everything that Boelcke told us, was to us, gospel truth.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 109.

Richthofen fully embraced Dicta Boelcke and, after gaining his own experiences in aerial combat, he learned to apply his critical-thinking to identify his maxims to improve and complement his list of successful air combat tactics doctrine. One of his doctrinal maxims to complement Dicta Boelcke was to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent’ or, having initiated a dogfight in favourable circumstances, know when to break off the attack when the situation has changed and is no longer favourable. He did not adhere to this principle, later, in his final mission.

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General von Falkenhayn and Richthofen inspecting a Fokker triplane. Mr A.H.G. Fokker is seated in the cockpit and General von Falkenhayn is on his right. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Richthofen’s Final Mission

On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a British Sopwith Camel piloted by novice Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid May of No. 209 Squadron. May had just fired on the Richthofen’s cousin, Lieutenant Wolfram von Richthofen. On seeing his cousin being attacked, Richthofen flew to aid his cousin and engaged May, causing the latter to disengage from his dogfight with Wolfram. In turn, Richthofen was attacked by another Sopwith Camel piloted by Canadian Captain Arthur ‘Roy’ Brown. Richthofen successfully evaded his attacker and, even though his Spandau machine guns had now jammed and could only be fired manually, resulting in single shots, he decided to resume his pursuit of May.

Richthofen was known to be very calculating in his observations of air battles before deciding when and whom to engage. Engagement only occurred when circumstances were likely to result in a favourable outcome. On this day, Richthofen’s judgment might have been affected by wanting to pursue the attacker who threatened his cousin, despite the circumstances – going against the aforementioned dicta that he considered critical for air combat success. Additionally, Richthofen had a reputation of being a skilled hunter on the ground with a single-shot rifle, and he may have decided that a victory with a single-shot Spandau machine gun be well within his capabilities and would significantly enhance his reputation and the morale of his flying Jasta.

May sought to escape Richthofen by rapidly descending to fly low across the front line into Allied-held territory. May later explained that his aircraft guns had jammed while being pursued and unable to out-manoeuvre Richthofen, he decided to fly low across the ridge into friendly territory, to ‘make a dash for a landing as his only hope.’[4] Eyewitness accounts reported seeing the Richthofen pursue May down to rooftop heights over the nearby village, which had a church with a bell-tower, and hearing the repeated cracking sounds of single gunshots coming from the aerial pursuit as the aircraft passed.

Richthofen appeared to decide to break one of his fundamental rules that he had previously applied so consistently in air combat by persisting in chasing May without regard for the new dangers arising around him. Richthofen was now flying low over Allied-held territory, with a strong easterly wind causing his aircraft to drift further behind enemy lines, and he was now flying low enough to be within the range of the Australian machine-gunners watching from the trenches. Richthofen seemed to have lost his situational awareness in focusing on May. Richthofen was then observed by the gunners in the trenches to fly up suddenly as if suddenly recognising the new dangers around him and only then decided to break off his pursuit of May – but it was too late. While pulling-up to ascend to a higher altitude above the trenches and ground troops, Richthofen was fatally struck by a single .303 round

He who gets excited in fighting is sure to make mistakes. He will never get his enemy down.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 137.

Mortally wounded, Richthofen managed to execute a controlled crash landing, on the Australian-held battleground, before dying in the cockpit. Australian soldiers were quick to attend the crash site and seek to recover Richthofen.

Medical forensic analysis has indicated that Richthofen seemed to suffer from an uncharacteristic episode of ‘target fixation’, breaking his own rule to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent.’ Medical researchers considered that this uncharacteristic error in judgement might be attributed to a persistent head injury from a head wound caused by a machine gun projectile ricocheting from his head during a dogfight that occurred nine months earlier.[5]

There has been controversy over multiple claims as to who was responsible for the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen; was it fired from a pursuing aircraft or one of the machine-gunners in the trenches? Although Brown was initially credited with the victory, medical forensic analyses of the wound ballistics, conducted in detail in later years, have indicated that Richthofen was struck in the chest by groundfire and not from an airborne shooter. Australia’s Official Historian, C.E.W. Bean, gathered eyewitness accounts from the battlefield that indicate it was most probable that Sergeant Cedric Popkin, an Australian Vickers machine gunner in the trenches, had fired the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen.[6]

Members of No. 3 Squadron, AFC, assumed responsibility for Richthofen’s remains as it was the Allied air unit that was located nearest to the crash site. Richthofen was buried in a military cemetery in France, with full military honours, by members of No 3 Squadron. A British pilot flew solo over the German air base of Jasta 11 to airdrop a message to respectfully inform them of the death of their celebrated commander, Baron Manfred von Richthofen on 21 April 1918.

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The funeral cortege of Baron Manfred von Richtofen moving along to the cemetery at Bertangles, 22 April 1918. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Enduring Lessons for Modern-Day Aerospace Professionals

While accepting the challenges associated with extrapolating lessons from a historical example, Richthofen’s development and experience as a fighter pilot in the First World War does, however, highlight several enduring lessons for those flying in today’s operating environment. A key lesson is the need to develop critical thinking amongst military professionals who can effectively analyse their operating environment and develop solutions to challenges.

Boelcke was one of the first air aces to apply critical thinking to air combat and draw out best-practices as a way to increase the probability of success for other pilots, especially new and inexperienced ones. This was something that Richthofen built on, and he recognised the need for what in the modern vernacular might be referred to as a system-of-interest whereby in the operation of aerospace systems, the air vehicle, operator, and operating procedures and tactics need to work effectively in combination to achieve success. However, the recognition that a weapon, such as an aeroplane, was only as good as the person who operated it, and the training, tactics and procedures used by that individual, was only one part of the critical thinking process.

It was also necessary for the likes of Richthofen to capture lessons learned in the combat environment and regularly test and evaluate critical systems to improve performance. This also required pilots such as Richthofen to learn from personal mistakes and those of critical peers through ongoing discourse with both subordinates and superiors. The next step in this process was the ability to apply them in operation. Nevertheless, these lessons learned processes were all for nothing if not usefully applied as evidenced by Richthofen’s final flight where we see the significance of high-consequence decision-making and the failure to reduce risk.

The accumulation of seemingly small discrete decisions made by Richthofen on his last flight, where each decision had a seemingly minor consequence when reviewed in isolation, resulted in an accumulative effect that ultimately resulted in catastrophe. As such, it is essential that organisations need to develop the right culture, management systems, and training programs to reduce catastrophic risks to a minimum. Indeed, in Richthofen’s case, arguably, someone should have ensured that he did not fly on that fateful day as he was neither in the right physical or mental condition to fly effectively. Pilots and aircrew are expensive assets to train and maintain, and unnecessary losses such as Richthofen’s impact on operational effectiveness. Richthofen’s state on 21 April 1918 affected his judgement as he ignored one of his critical dicta – to never obstinately stay with an opponent.

Finally, it is worth reflecting that innovation and inventiveness never rest. Sometimes it is beneficial to study the past before looking to the future and look for opportunities to build on the experiences and inventiveness of others rather than starting at an experience level of zero. As Richthofen himself reflected:

Besides giant planes and little chaser-planes, there are innumerable other types of flying machines and they are of all sizes. Inventiveness has not yet come to an end. Who can tell what machine we shall employ a year hence in order to perforate the atmosphere?

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 222.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is currently serving in the Royal Australian Air Force at the Air Power Development Centre in Canberra, analysing potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to the future applications air and space power. His Air Force career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is an Australian Institute of Project Management certified project manager and also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Royal Australian Air Force or the Australian Government.

Header Image: The remains of Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s plane and the two machine guns. Most of these officers and men are members of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

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[1] Der Rote Kampfflieger was first published in 1918. The quotes in this article are taken from the 1918 translation by T. Ellis Barker, with a preface and notes by C.G. Grey, editor of The Aeroplane. This edition published by Robert M. McBride & Co. can be found on the Gutenberg.org site.

[2] F.M. Cutlack, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume VIII: The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918, 11th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), p. 215.

[3] R.G. Head, Oswald Boelcke: Germany’s First Fighter Ace and Father of Air Combat (London: Grub Street, 2016), pp. 97-8.

[4] Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps, p. 251.

[5] P. Koul, et al, ‘Famous head injuries of the first aerial war: deaths of the “Knights of the Air”,’ Neurosurgical Focus, 39:1 E5 (2015).

[6] ‘Appendix 4 – The Death of Richthofen’ in C.E.W. Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume V: The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918, 8th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), pp. 693-701.

Air Power and the Battle of Hamel

Air Power and the Battle of Hamel

By Dr Michael Molkentin

Editorial Note: The 4th of July 2018 represented that 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Le Hamel. While Hamel was important, its place as a model on which subsequent operations were based has been overplayed. Furthermore, notable popular Australian historians have also distorted the significance of the battle. Nevertheless, as Dr Michael Molkentin highlights in this article, Hamel was valuable in highlighting the evolution of, and the diverse roles played by, air power in support of land battles during the First World War.

In the historiography of the First World War, the Battle of Hamel (4 July 1918) has frequently been cited as an example of significant tactical innovation and a ‘model’ on which subsequent British offensive operations were planned. While neither interpretation bears up to scrutiny when the battle is viewed within the broader context of British Army operations on the Western Front, relative to its size the Australian Corps’ capture of Hamel integrated air power to a hitherto unprecedented extent and, in hindsight, provides a revealing case study of the varied, distinct and specialist air power roles that had evolved during the conflict.

The Australian Corps’ headquarters, commanded by the recently appointed Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, planned the capture of the village of Hamel (located south of the Somme) as a line-straightening operation. Besides the troops of his own corps’ 4th Division, Monash had ten infantry companies from the US 33rd Division, 60 tanks from the British 5th Tank Brigade (including the new Mark V tank) and 639 artillery pieces. Monash planned to launch a surprise assault behind a creeping barrage and tank screen (much like British Third Army had done at Cambrai the previous November); he anticipated that his infantry could secure their objectives – two kilometres deep on a seven-kilometre wide front – within an hour and a half.

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A unique photo of a disabled British RE8 aircraft diving towards earth during the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade attack at Vaire Wood in the Battle of Hamel. It was subsequently discovered that the machine had been hit by a presumably faulty shell. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Monash’s staff also worked with the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) V Brigade to organise substantial and multi-layered air support for the operation. The Australian Corps’ corps squadron, No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps (AFC), would conduct the ‘majority of the tactical work’ during the battle. Its airmen would maintain a continuous presence over and directly beyond the battlefield to follow the progress of the Australian infantry (contact patrols), watch for enemy counter-attacks (counter-attack patrols), identify and direct artillery fire onto active German batteries (artillery patrols) and to photograph the new front line once it had been secured. New maps would then be produced and issued to troops in the front line within a matter of hours.[1] Assisting No. 3 Squadron with providing tactical air support, the RAF’s No. 8 Squadron would co-operate with the tanks while No. 9 Squadron parachuted ammunition to troops at their objectives. The night-bombers of No. 101 Squadron flew above the staging area on the night before the battle to mask the noise of the tanks as they moved up to their starting line.

The squadrons of 22nd (Army) Wing were also assigned to support the land battle: three of its four fighter squadrons would fly ground-attack sorties while its Bristol Fighter unit watched roads, railways and debussing points as far east as Proyart (10 kilometres east of Hamel). The army wing’s two bomber squadrons would meanwhile raid known German bivouacs. This aspect of the air plan reflected the RAF’s preference for interdiction over ‘trench strafing’ – the belief being that it was better to harass German troops and artillery behind rather than on the battlefield itself.[2] GHQ allocated three additional fighter squadrons from, IX Brigade, the RAF’s strategic reserve, to provide air superiority and the neighbouring Third Army’s fighters extended their offensive patrols south to cover the rest of Fourth Army’s front.[3]

Probably no other division-sized operation of the war enjoyed the combined support of aircraft from three wings, that is, 13 squadrons, or 230-odd aircraft. As well as the multi-faceted and highly integrated function that air power had assumed by this stage, the air plan, devised by the Australian Corps’ BGGS in collaboration with V Brigade illustrates the British Army’s growing reliance on machinery and firepower to reduce casualties and compensate for dwindling manpower.[4]

As the plan dispensed with a preliminary bombardment, No. 3 Squadron’s artillery spotting began at zero hour. For the first few hours, airmen reported batteries neutralised by the barrage so that artillery commanders could switch their guns onto active targets. The plan also allocated five heavy batteries to answer zone calls, airmen being briefed on where the Germans might move batteries once the battle started.[5] No. 3 Squadron issued 80 zone calls and co-operated in the neutralisation of at least 17 batteries (‘in many cases’ airmen did not see the artillery’s response to zone calls).[6] Although not entirely preventing it, the Australian Corps counter-battery arrangements suppressed the German artillery’s response adequately during the advance and consolidation.[7]

Counter-attack patrols flew beyond the German lines to ‘an unheard of distance’ with instructions to transmit zone calls on concentrations of German troops and engage them with bombs and machine guns.[8] One crew reported a concentration of enemy infantry just before 0700 but otherwise, seeing no enemy counter-attacks the airmen, as Lieutenant Arthur Barrett put it, ‘bombed and machine gunned everything we saw.’ Crossing the line just after zero hour he and his pilot halted a train, silenced several machine gun positions and strafed a pair of limbered guns, overturning one. Descending below 300 feet, Barrett’s eyes ran from gas in the barrage.[9] 3rd Squadron’s airmen dropped 138 bombs and fired 9,500 rounds on 4 July 1918.[10] Combined with the record 54,000 rounds and 850 bombs expended by 22nd Wing’s fighter pilots, this had a considerable impact on such a narrow battlefront.[11] ‘Several’ prisoners attested to the ‘moral effect’ of air attacks and noted how:

[t]hey prevent men getting machine guns into action almost as effectively as a barrage […] it was almost impossible to look over the top without getting machine gunned from the air.[12]

Corroborating this is German Second Army orders that noted ‘heavy casualties caused by machine gun fire from low-flying enemy machines’ at Hamel and issued instructions for dealing with British aircraft.[13]

Although Australian infantry had been signalling to aircraft since operations at Poziéres in 1916, contact patrols represented a new role for 3rd Squadron at Hamel. Despite difficulties experienced during the 1916-17 campaigns, the general staff recognised that aircraft provided the shortest possible passage of information from the battlefield to corps (and, atypically at Hamel, divisional) headquarters.[14] Dropped by airmen returning from the line, contact patrol reports reached headquarters staff in 24 minutes on average – up to half the time taken by a wireless message and a third of that usually taken by carrier pigeon.[15] Experience indicated that staff needed to synchronise contact patrols with the infantry’s timetable carefully. At Hamel, No. 3 Squadron had instructions to call for flares on the objective at 90 minutes after zero.[16] No. 8 Squadron followed the tanks across the battlefield and ‘in one or two cases were able to give information as to those which had been put out of action.’[17] The infantry’s clockwork progress and minimal resistance at the objective allowed the infantry and tanks to respond ‘well’ when contact patrol pilots sounded their klaxon horns; the airmen delivered ‘exceedingly accurate’ reports.[18] It remained to be seen, however, how the system would cope during running battles and exploitation operations when it would be arguably more crucial for staff to keep track of their troops.

4090362
A parachute, used as an ammunition carrier, caught in the trees at Vaire Wood, during the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918, when the supply of ammunition to the infantry by means of parachutes was a feature of aircraft cooperation. The picture was taken the day following, during shelling by the enemy of newly won Australian positions. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

For the first time, at Hamel, the RAF organised battlefield resupply using equipment designed and built at No. 3 Squadron’s aerodrome under the direction of ‘B’ Flight’s commander, Captain Lawrence Wackett. The idea apparently came from the Luftstreitkräfte’s (German Air Service) attempts at dropping ammunition to troops on the battlefield during the spring offensives.[19] At Hamel a detachment from No. 9 Squadron carried out the work, dropping 111,600 rounds to Australian troops at their objectives and at dropping stations close behind the line.[20] Endorsing Wackett’s claim for a £1,000 inventor’s fee from the British government (he received £350), Monash declared the scheme ‘an unqualified success’, noting how it permitted the rapid resupply of troops in ‘isolated and exposed positions’ and saved casualties among carrying parties.[21] His subordinates, though more prosaic, also indicated the trial’s success. 4th Australian Infantry Brigade’s CO described it as working ‘satisfactorily’ while 6th Brigade’s commander noted how the scheme ‘worked very well,’ delivering ammunition within 10 yards of one machine gun position.[22] Though faster, aircraft lacked the carrying capacity of other transportation available to the Australian Corps: a single tank could deliver four times as much ammunition as each of No. 9 Squadron’s aircraft, plus 300 grenades, 450 litres of water and a vast quantity of food and other trench stores.[23] Employed in all subsequent British offensives (the RAF delivered 30-60,000 rounds each day during the Amiens offensive), ammunition drops by corps squadrons thus remained an ‘emergency’ adjunct to other forms of battlefield logistics.[24]

The RAF’s tactical support was enabled, to a substantial extent, by the air superiority that British airmen exercised over the battlefield. Throughout the day, the fighter squadrons of 22nd (Army) Wing and three additional fighter squadrons attached from IX Brigade, ranged east of the battlefield to intercept any German aircraft that attempted to interfere. It was RAF policy to employ air superiority patrols offensively, east of the lines, rather than as a protective screen or close escorts. The airmen of the Luftstreitkräfte made no sorties over the Hamel battlefield until 9.30am – some five hours after the Australian infantry had secured their objective line. German fighters after that became ‘fairly active’ over the area, and there were ten air-to-air combats. In the largest of these, the SE5as of No. 24 Squadron engaged a mixed formation of 20 Fokker DVIIs, Pfalz scouts and Albatros DVs over Cerisy, six kilometres east of Hamel. The British pilots claimed three enemy aircraft and lost none themselves.[25] It is noteworthy that No. 24 Squadron was one of the 22nd (Army) Wing fighter units allocated to bomb and strafe targets on the ground behind German lines – its involvement in this dogfight illustrates the integration of air superiority and interdiction roles that British airmen had begun to undertake at Third Ypres the previous year.

Altogether, of the hundreds of sorties flown by the RAF in support of the Hamel operation, only three resulted in the loss of an aircraft to air combat– and only one of these involved one of the aircraft involved in direct tactical support over the battlefield. All other British losses resulted from ground fire, to which the pilots of low-altitude contact patrols and ammunition drops, were considered vulnerable.[26] The RAF’s efforts to maintain air superiority, therefore, appear to have been overwhelmingly successful – although the woeful deficiencies in material (especially fuel) that the Luftstreitkräfte faced in the summer of 1918 need to be recognised when evaluating the success of the British air plan.

4093525
The remains of RE8 C4580, which was shot down at Hamel Wood, by the enemy, after it had succeeded in dropping ammunition to the forward troops by means of parachutes. This aircraft was flown by No. 9 Squadron RAF during the Battle of Hamel and used for ammunition drops to the forward troops. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

The Battle of Hamel, therefore, indicates the extent and sophistication to which the application of British air power in support of surface operations had evolved during the First World War. The efforts of British airmen to support of Monash’s troops were not only extensive but organised carefully, through a variety of distinct air power roles, to provide a range of tactical and operational-level services that, considering the aircrafts’ technical limitations, functioned effectively. Indeed, the operation represented the high-water mark of efficacy in air-ground cooperation in the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War. As a limited, set-piece battle, Hamel drew on structures, procedures and technologies that had evolved during four years of trench warfare. Subsequent British operations during the ‘Hundred Days’, in which exploitation and pursuit replaced carefully planned set pieces, would test this system of integrating air power with surface forces and in some respects undermine the efficacy of British close air support. The war’s final battles would, in some respects, force airmen to begin their ‘learning curve’ all over again.[27]

Dr Michael Molkentin is a head teacher at Shellharbour Anglican College and an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales Canberra. He has a PhD in History from the University of New South Wales and is the author of three books, including Australia and the War in the Air (OUP, 2014). His next book, a biographical history of Sir Ross Macpherson Smith and the 1919 England to Australia air race will be published in 2019.

Header Image: An R.E.8 aircraft, serial number A3662, ‘J’, presented to the Australian Flying Corps by Mr H. Teesdale Smith of Adelaide, South Australia. This was the type of aircraft used by No. 3 Squadron AFC at the Battle of Hamel. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

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[1] Australian War Memorial (AWM), Canberra, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron War Diary, 4 July 1918.

[2] For a clear expression of this idea, see the Royal Flying Corps’ plans for defence in the German spring offensives: H.A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, Vol. IV, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1934), p. 445.

[3] The National Archives (TNA), London, AIR1/677/21/13/1887, Air Historical Branch, The Western Front Air Operations, May-November 1918, pp. 54-5.

[4] TNA, AIR1/1592/204/83/17, Brigadier-General Thomas Blamey, BGGS Australian Corps to GOC 4th Australian Division and GOC V Brigade RAF, 29 June 1918; Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities (London: Review, 2002), p. 236.

[5] AWM, AWM26 364/12, Counter-battery Australian Corps HA Operation Order No. 7, 1 July 1918.

[6] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918; TNA, AIR1/1009/204/5/1289, RAF Headquarters, Notes on corps squadrons work on the First and Third Army fronts during recent operations, 14 September 1918.

[7] AWM, AWM4 1/48/28 Part 1, 4th Division general staff war diary, 4 July 1918. The divisional staff noted that enemy artillery was ‘not very active’ and that retaliation against the Australian barrage was ‘weak’.

[8] AWM, AWM 2DRL/0053, Lieutenant Arthur Barrett to mother, 30 August 1918.

[9] AWM, AWM 2DRL/0053, Barrett to mother, 30 August 1918.

[10] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918.

[11] TNA, AIR1/1592/204/83/17, CO 22nd Wing RAF, ‘Summary of Operations’, 11 July 1918.

[12] TNA, AIR1/2124/207/74/3, Summary of air intelligence, 18 July 1918; AWM, AWM4 8/14/2, RAF Communiqué No. 15, 17 July 1918.

[13] TNA, AIR1/2124/207/74/3, Summary of air intelligence, 18 August 1918.

[14] General Staff, SS 205 – Notes on Observation from Aeroplanes (France: Army Printing and Stationary Services, February 1918), p. 10; AWM, AWM4 8/6/18, Captain Errol Knox, recording officer, 3rd Squadron to 3rd Squadron flight commanders, 3 July 1918.

[15] Jonathan Boff, ‘Air/land integration in the 100 Days: the case of Third Army’, RAF Air Power Review, 12:3 (2009), p. 82.

[16] AWM, AWM4 8/6/18, Knox to 3rd Squadron flight commanders, 3 July 1918.

[17] TNA, AIR1/677/21/13/1887, Air Historical Branch, Western Front air operations May-November 1918.

[18] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918.

[19] F.M. Cutlack, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918: Volume VIII – The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1939 [1923], p. 272; EML Gorrell papers, Series M, Item 14, GHQ AEF, Summary of Air Information, No. 29, 19.6.18.

[20] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918.

[21] AWM, AWM10 43/13, Lieutenant-General John Monash, GOC Australian Corps to The Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, 13 May 1919.

[22] AWM, AWM4 23/4/34 Part 1, Fourth Australian Infantry Brigade Intelligence Summary, 6am 3.7.1918 to 6am 4.7.1918; AWM4 23/6/35 Part 1, Brigadier-General J. Paton, CO 6th Australian Infantry Brigade, Preliminary Report on Operations of 6th AI Brigade on 4-7-1918.

[23] AWM, AWM4 1/48/29 Part 3, Fourth Australian Division Report on Operations- August 7th to August 10th 1918.

[24] Jones, The War in the Air, Vol. VI (1937), p. 484; TNA, AIR1/1009/204/5/1289, RAF Headquarters, Notes on corps squadrons work on the First and Third Army fronts during recent operations, 14 September 1918; TNA, AIR1/1591/204/83/8, 15th Wing Operation Order No. 112, 17 September 1918.

[25] AWM, AWM4 8/14/2, Royal Air Force Communique No. 14, 10 July 1918.

[26] Trevor Henshaw, The Sky their Battlefield II: Air Fighting and Air Casualties of the Great War, (London: Fetubi Books, 2014), p. 187.

[27] This argument is expanded in Michael Molkentin, Australia and the War in the Air (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 196-206.