Category Archives: Tactical Developments

20th October 1917 – Massive attacks

It has been four months since the German Air Service adopted the concept of the Jagdgeschwader, a larger formation than the Squadron which could be brought to bear on important sections of the front.

On the British side, Lieutenant-Colonel Felton Vesey Holt, commanding the Twenty-second (Army) Wing, had, in consultation with his squadron commanders, devised a scheme earlier in the year for the periodical employment of the maximum fighting strength of the Wing in ‘drives’ over the German back areas. The idea was to ‘net’ as many enemy airmen as possible, and the scheme was, therefore, only to be put into force if and when the German air service was sufficiently active to warrant an operation on such a scale. In the end, the scheme was not put into effect.

Today however, the RFC adopted many of the features in a raid on Rumbeke aerodrome. 45 aeroplanes took part, including 11 Sopwith Camels from 70 Squadron each carrying two 25-lb. bombs, 8 Camels from the same squadron in close escort; 19 Camels from 28 Squadron supporting from the rear to attack German aircraft which left the griound; and seven SPADs from 23 Squadron to act as a high offensive patrol to cover the whole operation.

The attack was successful. Twenty-two bombs were dropped from a height of four hundred feet : some of them fell among aeroplanes lined up on the landing ground, and blew one of them to pieces ; another bomb burst inside a hangar, but the remainder fell just by the hangars and sheds. The bombing pilots then flew about the aerodrome firing at the personnel and into the hangars and buildings. This machine-gun attack was made at an average height of about twenty feet.

Meanwhile, the escorting pilots of 70 Squadron and the patrol of 28 Squadron were having many combats within sight of the aerodrome.

Four German single-seaters were shot down out of control by the former and three by the latter. The operation was rounded off by machine-gun attacks, on the homeward journey, on troops playing games, on horse-transport, and on a troop train, into the windows of which a pilot of 70 Squadron fired from a height of fifty feet. Two aeroplanes of 70 Squadron were lost. These were 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Burt Farquharson in B2370 and Captain John Robert Wilson in B6352. Farquharson was taken prisoner but Wilson was killed. There were no other British casualties as a result of the raid.

Frederick Burt Farqaharson was an American who had joined the RFC through Canada. He went on to be a professor of Civil Engineering at Washington University specialising in aerodynamics and was one of those tasked with the investigation of the vertical oscillations on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge shortly before its collapse in 1940. He appears in the famous film of the bridge before its collapse.

The War diary of John Robert Wilson is also available.

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28 August 1917 – No low flying for the DH4

The Airco DH4 has been in service since January 1917, and has been proving popular with crews. However there is a severe shortage of the Rolls Royce Eagle engines which power it such that the RFC and RNAS are struggling to keep up with the requirements of existing squadrons never mind equipping any new ones. .

The engine issue is exacerbated by the problem that the engines have to be returned to Rolls Royce for repair and they do not have the capacity to repair damaged engines and build new engines at the rates required.

Rolls Royce have also refused to allow other manufacturers to make the engines as they fear a loss in quality.

Government inaction has further exacerbated the problem. Rolls Royce had proposed in the autumn of 1916 to set up a repair factory with government assistance but this has been repeatedly delayed until finally being agreed by the Air Board in July 1917. The factory is in the process of being set up but is not yet operational. The Government also recently took over the Clement Talbot Company to carry out repairs under Rolls Royce supervision, but again it will be many months before this is operational.

The end result of all this prevarication on the part of the Air Board is that the respective air service headquarters have had to issue orders that DH4s on the Western Front must carry out bombing missions below 15,000 feet to reduce the chances of being intercepted by the enemy and in turn to reduces losses and damage.

26 August 1917 – Integration

The integration of the RFC into the battle plans of the Army continues apace. Today, the infantry assault around Ypres was resumed with an attack on a point called Cologne Farm Hill. The RFC contributed to the attack in a variety of roles, showing the continuing specialisation of Squadrons.

On this occasion, twelve DH5’s from 24 and 41 Squadrons RFC carried out ground assault missions attacking infantry and transport.

At the same time, the progress of the British infantry was well reported by contact-patrol observers, and enemy aircraft were kept at a distance at the vital time by strong patrols of fighting aircraft,

Finally and the artillery aeroplane and balloon observers co-operated by reporting active German batteries and by observing for fire on them.

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Alexander Lindsay Macdonald

This was not without loss of course. 9 Squadron carrying out artillery observation in their RE8s suffered most. Captain Alexander Lindsay Macdonald and 2nd Lieutenant Francis John Ashburnham Wodehouse were shot down and killed in A4390. 2nd Lieutenant Harold C Dumbell had his leg broken by gunfire during an air combat. The pilot of his RE8 (A3770), Lieutenant Frederick Maden, was unhurt.

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John Gardiner White

2nd Lieutenant John Gardner White from 24 Squadron was attacking a trench in his DH5 (A9178) when his aircraft suddenly nose dived from about 200 feet. White was killed.

19 August 1917 – Ground Support

As part of the ongoing attacks around Ypres, the RFC has been testing new tactics of ground support.

On 9 August the 12th Division attacked opposite Boiry Notre Dame. 15 minutes before the infantry assault seven aeroplanes had assembled behind the lines in readiness. Just before ‘zero’ hour, three DH5s from 41 Squadron RFC crossed the barrage and attacked the German infantry.

At ‘zero’ hour the remaining four, FE2b’s from 18 Squadron RFC passed over the heads of the advancing infantry at 500 feet, and poured their machine-gun fire into trenches, trench mortar positions, and machine-gun emplacements.

Today the tactics were repeated on a larger scale. III Corps attacked south of Vendhuille, near Gillemont Farm The daybombing squadrons of the III Brigade concentrated their attention on the German group head-quarters at Bohain, and on billeting villages immediately behind the area of the attack.

When the infantry advanced, five DH5’s from 41 Squadron and nine from 24 Squadron RFC, four FE2b’s from 18 Squadron RRC , and five SE5’s from 60 Squadron, went ahead of the troops at a low height and fired around 9,000 rounds of ammunition into enemy troops and strong-points.

In the longer term the DH5 with its back staggered wings and excellent forward view  found a home in this role, which was just as well as it was a fairly poor fighter.

20 August 1917 – Standardisation

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Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt

Despite being three years into the war, there has yet to emerge a standardised means of artillery cooperation. Each Squadron has evolved its own methods which vary greatly depending on the experience and training of the squadron’s officers and the methods of the battery commanders they worked with. This is now proving a stumbling block to efficiency as battery commanders are moved around they have to start from scratch with each new squadron. It also has the effect of limiting training for observers who can only learn the basics before reaching the front.

In response to the criticism, Lieutenant-Colonel Edgar Rainey Ludlow-Hewitt, commanding the Third (Corps) Wing, put forward a memorandum which outlined the case for standardization of the methods of ranging for the artillery.

“In the early days of co-operation between aeroplanes and Royal Artillery batteries every observer and every battery commander had his own pet theories and methods. This fact necessitated elaborate arrangements between the observer and the battery commander before each shoot could be carried out. At that time, these arrangements presented no great difficulty because limited time and pressure of work were scarcely serious considerations. The observer was able to visit the battery commander before a shoot, and discuss with him, or was able to ring him up and arrange things on telephone lines which were not over-congested with traffic. They were further simplified by the comparatively small number of batteries which worked with aeroplane observation, which allowed one observer in the squadron to observe permanently for one battery. It was, in fact, almost impossible for him to observe for more than one battery, unless he was an expert and familiar with all the different methods in use. The result of this lack of system was that shoots were, for the most part, very slow, and it was considered a good flight when some 20 rounds had been fired and observed. Further, the number of methods in use rendered it quite impossible to teach a new observer all of them, and, if he was trained in only one, the chances were that he would be asked to work on another when he came to carry out his first shoot. Consequently, artillery work was confined to quite a few expert observers in each squadron. As work increased the three or four experts in the squadron found it impossible to compete with it all, and it became more and more necessary to train every available observer in artillery work. Increase in work, too, began to interfere with liaison between individual observers and battery commanders. These considerations, combined with the desirability of simplifying and improving co-operation, called for the introduction of simple standard methods by squadrons within the Corps with whom they worked.

Later again, active operations on a larger scale involving complete armies soon showed that standardization within armies was both desirable and necessary, not only to facilitate the training of observers in a Wing and to eliminate methods which experience and comparison between Corps began to prove to be faulty, but also to avoid a large number of failures which occurred through the transfer of batteries or groups from Corps to Corps within the Army, due to slight readjustments of the front or to the requirements of special operations. Standardization of methods of ranging within an Army soon began to show the best results in increased efficiency of observers and batteries, and a corresponding improvement in the speed and effect of the shooting. These improvements were at least very clearly demonstrated on the front of the Fourth Army during last winter and spring, when the observation of upwards of 200 rounds in the course of a single flight became as common as the so-called successful shoot of 70 or 80 observed rounds of a few months earlier. The advantages of working on a standard method did not only show themselves in the increased speed and destructive effect of bombardment with aerial observation, but also allowed each squadron to double the amount of work they had previously been capable of. This was the natural outcome of simplifying and reducing the number of methods to be taught, so that observers could be made use of much earlier than heretofore. The time has now arrived when by natural development standardization should extend beyond the confines of individual Armies, and one system should become general for the whole of the British Armies in the field. The desirability of further standardization is shown in recent operations on the Fourth Army front when a concentration of batteries collected from all parts of the fighting line introduced, as far as the artillery were concerned, a large number of different systems, all of which had to be unlearned before serious and successful work could commence. The case would, of course, have been exactly the same had the concentration been of Flying Corps squadrons instead of batteries. It is not intended to suggest that the standard system used during the past winter in Fourth Army is by any means the best system, but the contention is that the introduction of any standard system will necessarily result, and has resulted, in reducing complications, preventing frequent changes, and making co-operation very much easier for all concerned. An aerial observer should not be considered as being in a similar position to a ground observer in an observation post. In the air, the observer is surrounded with distractions and confused with uncertainties. He is thinking how he can best avoid the shells bursting around him, wondering whether yonder hostile machine is going to take an interest in him, dodging clouds and other machines, and is the victim of a dozen other preoccupations.

He feels very remote and cut off from the ground to which, indeed, he is only connected by the delicate thread of his wireless signals. As soon as any check or difficulty arises in the even course of his shoot he becomes a prey to doubt and uncertainty. Is the battery receiving his signals—is there some misunderstanding, or why have they stopped? He can only succeed in the face of these distractions if he is in the first place familiar with his wireless key, and if the methods employed are well understood and so simple that he can carry on almost instinctively with a minimum of thought and concentration. Secondly, stoppages and checks in shoots must be avoided, and if they occur the answer to his appeal for information must be prompt and clear. Rhythm enters into it. One should avoid introducing intervals and pauses of unequal length. The study of the record of any good shoot will show with what remarkable regularity the signals follow each other until the steady pulse of the shoot is brought up with a jerk by some temporary stoppage which throws the whole machinery out of gear and upsets the rhythmical speed for some little time…

The far-reaching effects which standardization of ranging methods may have is best shown in the consideration of its influence on the instruction and turning out of observers. The amount of aerial observation work required by a Corps during and previous to active operations is often beyond the powers of a Corps squadron on the present establishment. The difficulties of organization and supply of personnel and material limit the size and number of squadrons which can be attached to each Corps, and, therefore, any increase in the working value of a squadron must depend on extracting the full measure of work out of each observer. There is no room in a modern squadron for untrained observers, and no time to train them. Casualties and the strain of war flying render continual replacement necessary, and, although each casualty is immediately replaced, the working value of the squadron still suffers a dead loss temporarily while the new man is learning methods of work which he cannot at present learn at home. This means that a squadron at present can never be working at full strength. There are in England several schools of instruction in observation for pilots and observers, but they are heavily handicapped by being unable to teach more than the elements and first principles of observation duties owing to: (a) the number of systems in use out here, and (b) the frequent changes in systems which make it impossible for them to keep up to date. Standardization, besides increasing the confidence of instructors, will render it possible to turn out observers of such efficiency that they can commence useful work immediately on posting to a squadron… As the strength of the artillery and the Flying Corps increases, liaison must continue to weaken, and the only substitute for the old understanding obtained by personal contact is the mechanical understanding induced by observer and battery commander working on the same formula and controlled by the same hand. The high-water mark of mutual understanding can now only be reached by perfect drill, whereby the battery and the aeroplane will work in one piece…. The introduction of one method only to all parts of the front will result in a reduction of signals and a general clean up of unnecessary litter….”

As a result of this memorandum a circular letter was sent to all Corps wing commanders asking for a full statement of the methods of co-operation in use. The answers received will form the basis of discussion with the artillery authorities at General Headquarters, and the creation of new guidelines for artillery cooperation.

9 August 1917 – Wireless Interception Scheme

Following its work with the Army in July, 4 Naval Wing had returned to naval work off the Belgian coast. Today however, 4 Naval Wing was tasked with specialist wireless interception work on behalf of the Fourth Army which had relieved the French in the coastal area.

The purpose of wireless interception is to try and disrupt enemy aircraft communications with their own artillery.

This works by having a ground station which signals to patrolling aircraft details of enemy aeroplanes working in the area. One flight from each Squadron is kept in readiness to respond to signals.

Once a signal is received the flight leader flies over the Station to learn what was the latest position of the enemy aircraft. This was conveyed by means of markings on the ground. The area opposite the Fourth Army front was divided into three numbered sectors. An oblong grid, laid out near the Wireless Station, was divided to correspond with these, and a white disk indicated in which sector the enemy
aeroplanes were working. An arrow of white strips gave further indication of their bearing from the station, and bars on either side of the arrow told of their height.

29 May 1917 – Advertisement Lighting Order

Today, Britain got even darker – literally, when the Government implemented a further lighting restriction covering all of England and Wales.

The ‘Advertisement Lights Order’ prohibited the use of illuminated advertisements, of lights outside or at the entrance to any place of amusement, and of all lighting inside shop premises for display or for advertisement after the shops had been closed.

The Order would remain in force for the next 2 years. From that time period it will be clear that this continued well after the war was over and the threat of air raids gone.

This was because the primary reason for the lighting order was not to impair the ability of raiders to find targets but simply to save coal and was made at the request of the coal controller.

In fact up to this point most Zeppelins had struggled to recognise targets in the dark and the recent aircraft raids had taken place in daylight.

In many ways the order really only served the purpose of reassuring the public, particularly in areas subject to frequent raids.