During the course of World War 1, five generations of fighter planes appeared, from 1914-1918.
Bombers also were in use. The Lafayette Escadrille pilots called the early bombers “baby carriages” because of their boxy, bulky appearance and their pilots were called “truck drivers.” In the early days, the bomb would be dropped by hand as the bomber flew over the target.
Initially, the French Bleriot plane was used for reconnaissance on Germany’s troop movements at the front lines.” (The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921 by John H. Morrow, Jr.) German and French planes would occasionally pass each and wave as they checked on each other’s movements. But that changed quickly as the planes became weaponized and “dogfights” began.
The machine guns were fixed to the aircraft and the enemy planes would dive and wheel about in the air as they tried to shoot down the opposing aircraft. In the early days, the Lafayette Escadrille pilot would have to stand up to fire the machine gun that was mounted to the top wing in front of his seat in a Nieuport 17 aircraft. The Lewis machine gun was capable of firing 97 bullets a minute, but would frequently jam after a few rounds. So dogfights were understandably brief. Once the gun jammed, the pilot would either head for home or get shot down if he could not outmaneuver the other plane.
Improvements in weapons and planes came at a rapid pace, as each side tried to get the edge on the other. The French began experimenting with a synchronizer that would allow the pilot to shoot an automatic rifle and have the bullets pass safely through the spinning propeller.
The Germans had a Dutch aircraft designer, Anthony Fokker, that perfected a cam-operated synchronizer that safely allowed a machine gun to be fired through the propeller. The German fighter plane with this equipment would be called a Fokker. The greatest German master of the dogfight was Baron Manfred von Richthofen, known as the “Red Baron” because of the color of his plane. His group of fighter pilots were called his “Flying Circus.”
By the summer of 1917, the Allies had outstanding fighter planes in the SE5 and Sopwith Camel.
Despite the ferocity of aerial combat, there were times when a sense of humor would prevail. During one intense dogfight close to the airfield of the Lafayette Escadrille, one of the pilots on the ground saw a fur-lined glove floating down to the ground. He saw by the quality and make that it was German. He kept it. The next day a German plane flew overhead and a second glove, weighted down, came floating down with a note attached to it. It said something to the effect that as the German pilot only had one glove and it was of no use to him without the second, he was sent it down with his compliments and hoped the finder would enjoy them both.
Question: In the midst of war, have you read about incidents that occurred between combatants that showed the humanity of both or their sense of humor?
In the last installment of the Lafayette Escadrille, we will remember the legacy of the American fighter pilots who fought for France in World War I.
Flood, C.B. (2015). First to Fly: the Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew For France in World War I. New York: Grove Press.
Morrow Jr.,J.H. (1993). The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Carroll, A. (2017). My Fellow Soldiers: General Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War. New York: Penguin.