During the night of January 30/31, a century ago, two German bomber squadrons dropped fourteen tons of bombs on Paris, killing 49 civilians and injuring another couple of hundred. The raid was carried out in response to Anglo-French attacks on German cities, and illustrated how far the dark science of strategic bombing had come since the first single-seater machine had dropped the first small bombs on Paris at the end of August 1914 (30 August, 1914: The Bomb!). The attackers’ only loss over Paris was a reconnaissance machine, a DFV-CV, shot down by a French night fighter over the city’s eastern suburbs, and that was as good an illustration as any of how the science of anti-aircraft warfare had failed to keep up.
The most basic form of anti-aircraft fire was delivered by riflemen on the ground, who couldn’t help shooting at passing planes and occasionally brought one down, but systematic destruction of enemy machines had been considered a matter for artillery by all armed forces since the birth of military flight. Known to the British as ‘Archie’ or ‘ack ack’, and as ‘flak’ to the Germans, anti-aircraft guns were controlled by the artillery commands of armies or navies in every belligerent country except Germany, where they were run by the Army Air Service.
They didn’t amount to much between them when war broke out in 1914. A few German field guns had been modified to fire at the sky, the French Army possessed a total of two purpose-built anti-aircraft armoured cars carrying 75mm guns, and the BEF made do with a handful of mobile 3-inch guns on an enlarged mounting. This hardly mattered at first, given the small number of aircraft in use, their limited use in combat roles and a performance level that meant they could be pursued on the ground, but rapid development during 1915 forced all the major belligerents to come up with countermeasures.
At first, standard field guns were fitted with upward-firing mountings and set to work, and many of these mutants remained in service throughout the War. Purpose-designed AA guns were soon in production everywhere, but they were almost all minor adaptations of existing field gun designs. The Germans adapted 80mm and 75mm field pieces, and the French stuck with their ubiquitous ‘Soixante-Quinze’, while the British and US armies maintained their preference for 3-inch guns.
That was about it for wartime technological development in the field. Some shells were lightened but fired with the same charge (because that made them go higher), and 1918 saw the German Air Service introduce a rapid-firing 20mm cannon that became the basis for light anti-aircraft defence during the Second World War, but otherwise the guns themselves remained essentially unchanged.
On land, AA batteries were originally scattered around large areas in small groups (of at least two guns, so that a ranging shot could be followed up quickly), in the hope of catching slow-moving aircraft wherever they appeared. As it became clear that visual targetting of one aircraft’s three-dimensional movement almost never did the job, and as the numbers of aircraft and their attack potential mounted, guns were massed in large formations around anticipated targets such as military installations close to front lines, airfields, industrial centres, population centres and coastal installations. At sea, most major warships carried standard anti-aircraft guns by 1916, singly or in pairs, but nobody really expected them to hit anything.
Within this very basic framework, some advances were made in technique. Improving central command and control systems made massed AA operations steadily more efficient, as did use of telescopes to chart and anticipate a target’s course, while ‘barrage’ systems were employed to apply blanket coverage to a particular sector of airspace. As night attacks from the air became more common, searchlights and flares were employed to illuminate targets, and ‘barrage balloons’ sent up to force attackers into ‘barrage’ corridors. In case you were wondering about altitude settings for AA shells, they didn’t need much in the way of technical advance… the longer the fuse, the higher the explosion.
Most AA guns fired shrapnel, which stood by far the best chance of hitting something, but some battery commanders preferred to use high-explosive (HE) shells, which stood an outside chance of obliterating something. By 1918, HE shells had been superseded by incendiary shells, which offered gunners the best of both worlds. Originally designed by the British for use against German Zeppelins, they behaved like shrapnel but threw out balls of burning thermite.
Nobody could do without anti-aircraft guns to protect threatened areas, but they were responsible for only a small fraction of aviation losses, mostly on the busy Western Front, and it was generally recognised that they were no more than a token threat to rapidly improving aircraft designs. By 1918 they were seen as intrinsically deficient by most military planners, and post-war development concentrated on the use of fighter aircraft as the best defence against aerial bombing.
I mentioned balloons, and while I’m delving into the War’s smaller details I’ve got an excuse for a word about them. Barrage duties aside, hot-air and gas-filled balloons were a common sight throughout the War on static battlefields, where they performed observation duties for artillery commanders. Cheaper to run than aircraft, and a more stable viewing platform, they were winched by ground crew to various heights in groups of two or three, and their cross-referenced observations were transmitted to the ground by flag signals, or sometimes radio.
The two or three men crewing an observation balloon, ‘balloonatics’ to the British, were sitting ducks for any attacker, and on busy fronts they were attacked all the time, but the balloons themselves were notoriously difficult to destroy. Standard bullets generally passed straight through the fabric, forcing enemy aircraft into repeated, close-range attacks that risked entanglement in wires or cables, as well as the attention of any AA guns in the vicinity. Shooting down a balloon was generally credited as a full ‘kill’ by all air forces, and several ‘aces’ on both sides of the Western Front earned their name as ‘balloon busters’.
Although some German balloons were equipped with powered winches by 1918, for rapid descent when under attack, crews’ survival chances had been further reduced by increased use of HE and incendiary bullets. It was a tough job, and that was why balloon crews were, along with airship crews, were the only British airmen allowed to use parachutes. And so to one of the War’s weird yet characteristic details, the parachute…
Parachutes were well known in 1914, but the types used by wartime air services were strapped to the outside of the aircraft, and attached to the crewman by a long cord that automatically opened the chute when he jumped. Regular requests for the use of these from aircrew on both sides were refused on the grounds that they were too fragile for attachment to powered aircraft, and the fairly costly alternative of providing parachutes worn by the jumper was never considered, primarily on the grounds that the crew of an armed aircraft had no right to such protection. The German Air Service changed its mind in 1918, when it faced a critical shortage of aircrew, and a few pilots were given wearable models, but the British flying services in particular continued to regard requests for a parachute as tantamount to cowardice. Wearable parachutes were used by espionage agencies on all sides for dropping agents behind enemy lines, but that’s another story.
There are no moral messages or world-changing historical threads here, just a quick glance at some of the less storied strangeness polluting Europe’s war-torn skies in 1918 – and a shred or two of evidence that the Great War featured more ways to die than heritage recalls.