Evolution of fighter planes during World War I

Today, fighter planes & drones have become more of instruments of “Aerial Combat” where the enemy remains unseen & the fight remains highly impersonal.

BHPian nivatakavacha recently shared this with other enthusiasts.


Last week, I watched Avatar: The Way of Water in a theatre near me and it was in that film during a certain fight sequence that I knew that I had to write this article immediately. This theme had been at the back of my mind for a long-long time and being an expert at procrastination does not help. Anyways, after the film, I finally planted my firm bottom very firmly onto a seat like a leech and did the necessary research for writing this article. It was cathartic in many ways since I had to sift through many childhood memories and forge my way down the rabbit hole through endless Google hyperlinks. Hope you will like it.

I will come back to that particular film sequence later in the article.

Right from a young age, I have always been fascinated by the human achievement of mastering flight. What people dreamt about for centuries was made possible on December 17th, 1903 by the Wright Brothers. It was a relatively short flight of 12 seconds but paraphrasing the famous words of Neil Armstrong, it was a “Giant leap for humankind”.

So much has changed over the last 100 years and we now take air transport for granted; often not realizing the extent of technological changes over the years. Today air transport is often called the safest way to travel but it was not the same a hundred years back. I truly am amazed when I think of the initial batch of people who took to the skies chasing their Icarus-isque dreams. The first flyers were pioneers, who often risked their lives and livelihood; financially bootstrapping their own flights with flimsy rudimentary machines either for fame or the adrenalin rush.

Another fascinating topic for me growing up was the evolution of fighter planes. We today talk about the fifth and sixth-generation fighter planes but not many people are aware of the initial days of air warfare. Today with the use of modern tech, radar and guided missiles; fighter planes and drones have become more of instruments of “Aerial Combat” where the enemy remains unseen and the fight remains highly impersonal. But back in the heydays of fighter planes, the planes were more machines of “Dogfight” where the enemy plane was often 50 feet away from you and the fights highly personal. I am a big WW1 and WW2 plane aficionado and I hope (by writing this article) that more people get bitten by the same bug.


One of the reasons I fell in love with the topic was because I discovered (in my youth) the novels written by Capt. W.E. James about his famous character Bigglesworth who joins the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) at the tender age of 17 and becomes a flying ace during WW1 over the western front. Please check out those books if you are interested in the same. (Biggles learns to fly, Biggles of the Camel Squadron, Biggles in France etc.) I used to pour over them when a kid and imagined piloting a Sopwith Camel over marine drive, Cochin back then.

While humans have always since time immemorial, been perfecting the art of slaughtering each other, WWI was a major game changer when it came to the art of warfare. WW1 was unique for a few very important reasons:

  1. It was the first major conflict where animals (cavalry/pack animals) stopped being relevant with the advent of the battle tanks and trucks.
  2. Humans have always fought on water but the introduction of submarines led to major advances in ocean warfare and transport. WW1 was one of the first major conflicts in which submarines were widely used.
  3. The concept of trench warfare. Earlier battles were often huge set pieces.
  4. Finally, most importantly, it was the first global war in which planes were used on such a mass scale. Superiority over the skies was an added dimensional in the mastery of war. All the rulebooks and guides, all that was taught at military schools changed overnight. It was the war where people like Oswald Boelcke devised the first rules of engagement in the air.

The first documented use of airplanes in war actually predates WW1. By 1910, balloons and airships were used regularly for artillery spotting, cartography and detecting troop movements. But the disadvantages and limitations were obvious – poor manoeuvrability and flammability. Countries warmed up the idea of airplanes as military equipment and set about forming their own primitive air forces. France setup its “Armée de l'Air” in 1909/1910. Germany founded its “Luftstreitkräfte” in 1910 and Britain formed its “Royal Flying Core” in 1912.

The first documented use of airplanes was in 1911 during the Italo-Turkish War when an Italian pilot Carlo Piazza flew a sortie over Turkish lines in North Africa in a Blériot XI plane. Over the course of that war, there is more innovation involved when pilots dropped bombs and leaflets over enemy forces. Overall, the number of Italian pilots was about 6 in that entire campaign and even though their influence over the course of the war was negligible, the shock value it provided was immense. They used a mix of aircrafts including the Blériot XI, Etrich Taube and probably the Nieuport II as well.

Coming to WW1, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, things quickly escalated due to the complex alliance network between the European powers (a plan which in the immortal words of Blackadder was “bollocks”) and the entire Continent plunged into war. At first, people were skeptical about the uses of the plane in warfare but then through 1914, most of the generals and marshals initially warmed up to the idea of using planes for reconnaissance and artillery spotting.

From what I could research, Britain had about 66 pilots (in 4 airplane squadrons) at the break of WW1 and they used the B.E.2.B plane to fly across the English Channel. France was more advanced and had about 150 airplanes, pilots and used a mix of Blériot XI, Morane-Saulnier L, Farman MF11 and Caudron G3. The Germans started the war with about 250 planes with a mix of Etrich Taube, Albatros Doppeltaube and Aviatik B1 being the dominant ones.

Getting reliable information from the net seems to be a tough task since there were a plethora of planes and variants used back in those days. The planes were rudimentary back then and our modern cars have more horsepower than the engines used back then for those planes. The planes were a motley mess of metal, fabric, wood and wires. It might seem comical now, but the Farman MF11 was called the “Bird Cage”; the theory being that the biplane had some missing wire connection between the wings if a sparrow managed to escape from it. The average early planes had engines with about 60-70 HP, a top speed of 60 MPH and a ceiling of 12,000 feet.

In the initial stages of the war, the planes were primarily used for reconnaissance and they did not aim to master the skies above. Enemy pilots often saluted one another when they encountered each other above the skies. They usually came under rifle fire from the ground and the first documented case of airplane loss due to rifle fire was a British Avro 504 shot down by German troops in Aug 1914. Both the pilot and the observer were killed in action.

When the importance of reconnaissance was recognized by all the participants of the war, the pilots and observers started shooting at each other with pistols when the planes passed each other. This really was not very effective but at times, it did enough to scare off the enemy pilots. The planes were also used for bombing when pilots would drop handheld bombs into the enemy formations. One of the more extreme measures some pilots would take was aerial ramming where they would use their planes to ram enemy planes (suicidal in many ways). Russian ace Alexander Kazakov was a proponent of the ramming theory!

The first documented case of aerial victory by shooting is attributed to Sergeant Joseph Frantz who along with his observer Louis Quénault, flying a Voisin Type 3 biplane shot down a German Aviatik with a Hotchkiss machine gun on October 5th 1914.

In the early days of the war, accidents caused more causalities than enemy fire. The squadrons worked out of available fields and takeoff/landings were notorious for causing accidents. Also, pilots would lose their way, and their sense of direction when up there (especially the rookies) and it was not uncommon for pilots to land in some field and ask for direction from the local populace.

This brings us to the main technological challenge back then.

Mounting machine guns into planes were a lot easier in pusher-type propeller driver planes where the propeller was behind the pilot and gunner. This opened up the field of view up front to the gunner who could fire at enemy aircrafts. But this design had its own aerodynamic limitations and hence, the Tractor configuration was preferred by many where the propeller was ahead of the pilot like the planes we see today.

However, this had a major challenge since guns could not shoot through the delicate wooden propellers without damaging them. Hence, at the start of the war, the British still preferred the pusher type while others were experimenting with machine guns mounted over the upper wing. But that was not effective either. The pilots could not aim properly and the early guns were prone to jamming as well.

Little did the early aviators know that their world would completely change in 1915; the rules of aerial warfare were to change forever. And it has a French open Connection as well. I am presuming that many of you would have heard about Roland Garros and the French Open. It is actually named after the famous aviator called Roland Garros and he has an important role to play in this story.

He was born in 1888 and took to flying in 1909. In the prewar era, he was famous for setting quite a few attitude records and he was also the first to make a solo non-stop flight across the Mediterranean from the south of France all the way to Tunisia. He was already a famous person. Once the news of the war broke out, he found himself in a sticky position since he was in Berlin at that moment. It took some planning and a lot of courage but he hopped onto the near available plane and made his way to Paris and enlisted in the French air force.

As described above, the limitations of the current planes that he had were frustrating when he was with the Escadrille MS26 and in late Oct/Nov 1914, he visited the Morane-Saulnier workshop to work along with Raymond Saulnier to find a solution for this problem. They realized that the only way they could solve this problem was by finding a mechanism where the guns would fire synchronously through the propeller blades. This would give the pilots total control and accurate aim for taking down enemy aircrafts.

They solved the issue partially with a crude mechanism and Roland Garros and his mechanic Jules Hue fitted their Morane-Saulnier Type L with this mechanism and took to the skies in April 1915. The results were apparent and Roland shot down a couple of German planes in a space of a few weeks. Word soon spread around. The Germans were caught napping and it is said that at that time, German planes flew away when they spotted a single-seater Morane-Saulnier Type L back then. The tables would soon turn when Roland himself was struck by ground fire on 18th April and was forced to land in German territory. He could not destroy the plane quickly and the design fell into German hands. Roland himself would become a POW and his story arc becomes one of trial and tribulations.

Antony Fokker augmented this design with an interrupter system and came up with his version of the synchronization gun and this would literally change the war. The German military quickly put this into production into the Fokker Eindeckers and the first planes with lethal forward-firing machine guns flew over the western front by June/July 1915.

The period of July 1915 to early 1916 was called by the Allied as “The Fokker Scourge” since the Allied planes did not have an answer to this new technology and this was a period of German Air superiority. The Fokker Eindeckers were not very superior to the Allied planes but this crucial technology helped them rule the skies.

Thus began the age of the “Ace”. An ace was a pilot who shot down a minimum of 5 enemy planes.

Two Germans, very important to this story got their hands on these new planes and they laid down the rules of modern aerial combat as we know it today – Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke.

All throughout 1914, they flew their reconnaissance sorties, took pictures, tried shooting at enemy planes with pistols and rifles. They were frustrated at that time because they could not do more but they became seasoned airmen. The skills that they possessed coupled with the synchronized gun gave them an advantage that not many had.

On 1st August 1915, Max got this first aerial victory when he shot down British Pilot, Lt William Reid who had come over on a bombing exercise in his B.E.2 plane. In the letter that he wrote to his mother post the battle:

Suddenly, I saw Boelcke going down in a steep dive. As I learned later, his gun had jammed badly and he could no longer fire. I was just halfway between Douai and Arras when I saw a third flier far ahead of me. We were at about the same altitude. I could not see whether it was an enemy or one of ours. I flew towards him. Then I saw him drop bombs over Vitry. Now it was clear: an enemy.

I climbed a bit and flew towards him. I was about 80 to 100 meters higher than him and about 50 meters away in a straight line. I could see the French emblem big and clear: blue, white and red rings. Now there was no longer any doubt. The other two came at me now, although they were still a bit higher. Like a hawk, I dived on the one and fired my machine gun.

For a moment I believed I would fly right into him. I had fired about 60 shots when my gun jammed. That was quite awkward, for to clear this jam I needed both hands, without being able to operate the control column. This was new and strange to me, but it worked. In the course of the flight that happened to me twice.

Meanwhile, the enemy headed towards Arras. Quickly, I came up alongside him and cut off his way back, in which he was forced to make a left turn, that is in the direction of Douai. We came down about 400 meters. During my respite from firing, I heard only softly the machine-gun clatter of the enemy still above me. I kept myself constantly perpendicular to my victim because no biplane can fire perpendicularly upwards. After 450 to 500 shots, the battle lasted about eight to ten minutes, the enemy went down in a steep glide. I followed him. I could no longer fire, the machine gun had broken. When I saw that he had landed I landed near him immediately.

Max would land his plane beside Lt. William Reid, shook his hand, gave him first aid and told him that he was his prisoner!

As the months ticked along, the Ace race was truly on. The first aces in the war were German. One day it would be Max, the next it would be Boelcke and there were others who joined in the party as well. Boelcke would summarize and crystallize all their learning this his famous treaty called the “Dicta Boelcke” which was shared with all incoming German pilots.

  1. Always try to secure an advantageous position before attacking. Climb before and during the approach in order to surprise the enemy from above, and dive on him swiftly from the rear when the moment to attack is at hand.
  2. Try to place yourself between the sun and the enemy. This puts the glare of the sun in the enemy's eyes and makes it difficult to see you and impossible for him to shoot with any accuracy.
  3. Do not fire the machine guns until the enemy is within range and you have him squarely within your sights.
  4. Attack when the enemy least expects it or when he is preoccupied with other duties such as observation, photography, or bombing.
  5. Never turn your back and try to run away from an enemy fighter. If you are surprised by an attack on your tail, turn and face the enemy with your guns.
  6. Keep your eye on the enemy and do not allow him to deceive you with tricks. If your opponent seems damaged, follow him down until he crashes to be sure he is not faking.
  7. Foolish acts of bravery only bring death. The Jasta (squadron) must fight as a unit with close teamwork between all pilots. The signals of its leaders must be obeyed.
  8. For the Staffel (squadron): Attack in principle in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats, take care that several do not go for one opponent.

If any of you have read the Biggles novels that I mentioned earlier, the Sun could be the pilot’s greatest friend or foe up in the sky and these paradigms were set by Boelcke himself based on his experience. The base rules would further be expanded upon by the next generation of pilots including – most notably, the greatest ace of WW1 – Manfred Von Richthofen (The Red Baron) and he, along with the “Flying Circus” would rule the skies in 1916, 1917 and 1918.

The “Fokker Scourge” came to an end in early 1916 with the advent of new Allied planes like the British F.E.2b pusher aircraft, the Airco DH.2 and the French Nieuport 11 planes. The British still preferred their pusher-type planes but these were 2 seaters and the gunner could attack the German planes.

The British equivalent of the synchronized machine gun came into service in March 1916 and this helped turned the tide against German air superiority with the Bristol Scouts.

From 1916 onwards, the race was to make better more powerful, faster, and more manoeuvrable planes and the race was firmly between the British and the Germans who outclassed the others in making these weapons of war. The other countries too had their own Aces and Heroes and you can refer to them in this link.

Some of the eminent German planes included the Albatros D.III, Fokker Triplane and the Fokker D.VI.

Some of the eminent British planes included the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 and my favorite plane of all time – the Sopwith Camel.

Ain't she a thing of beauty?

I will not go into details about these aircrafts as I have hyperlinked all of them for reference.

By the end of WW1, planes had become an integral part of the military and all the nations invested a lot of money into the development of their air forces. Planes became safer to fly and many of the technological advancements made were poured back into civilian planes.

The Interbellum period saw more development in fighter plane technology but it was WW2 that again pushed the envelope for fighter plane development and strategy. The jet engine that we use now was developed and used first during WW2 in the plane - Messerschmitt Me 262.

At the peak of the war in 1917 and 1918, the average life expectancy of a rookie pilot was just a few days. The conditions were brutal, they had to run multiple sorties throughout the day. While I might have romanticized those initial cavaliers of the sky in my youth, the sheer brutality of it all sank in as I have become older.

PS: I had talked about the inspiration for this article right? In the climactic fight in the movie, one of the Ikrans make a classic Immelmann turn. That coupled with many of the Ikran sequences all have the marks of classic WW1 and WW2 dogfight manoeuvres.

Thanks all for patiently reading through this. I would love to read your insights and other significant nuggets of information that I would have missed mentioning in this article.

Check out BHPian comments for more insights and information.

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