Before World War I, battles took place strictly on land and at sea. Even the finest, sharpest military minds in the world couldn’t imagine in the 19th century that one day, who controlled the skies would determine, to a large extent, who would be victorious in battle, whether in a small skirmish or a global conflict.
But like so many things, what was once unimaginable became, by the early 20th century, a standard part of military affairs, a new way to conquer enemies – using aircraft to do it. Initially planes were defensive rather than offensive, in that the pilots did reconnaissance work to discover where, and how strong enemy forces were.
For example, in the early part of the First World War, Germany used its advanced aviation technology to find Allied forces, other planes sent to spy on their personnel. If a British plane was in the sky in 1914 after war broke out, it was not there to do battle – it was there to learn about enemy strongholds. And what those British (and French) planes met terrified the pilots.
The Germans were using aircraft called “Fokker” planes, and these became a dominant part of their fighting forces. “The Fokker Scourge,” as the planes were known, struck terror into the hearts of the Allies, and were responsible for many deaths of English and French pilots.
What was so striking about the Fokker planes was the design – the aircraft fired machine guns that were mounted forward, and fed by belts, which made firing fast. Furthermore, the planes were fairly light and that made them better able to out-maneuver the opposition. During 1914 and early 1915, these aviation devils truly trounced the Allied efforts in the skies.
But like all things military, it’s never a question of if a better technology will come along; it’s only a question of when, and the Allies were able to best the Germans by getting to the next benchmark first.
When a Fokker plane landed in an Allied zone, the British and French seized on the opportunity to study the aircraft. And thanks to the ingenuity of French aeronautics designers, not only did the Allies come to understand how the Fokker plane operated, they were able to improve upon its engineering and design.
Their innovation was the Nieuport II, a fast, light plane that outperformed the Fokker on just about every level. Its guns were mounted on the top wing, and while this element presented problems in some respects, the benefits outweighed any drawbacks.
The Nieuport was faster than anything the Germans were flying then, and it out manoeuvred everything Germany put into the skies. And the French and British air forces realized quickly that they needed teams of skilled pilots to steer these machines – squadrons, as we know them today – while Germany was still thinking of planes as only part of its fighting force.
They didn’t consider that whole numbers of men should be trained on new aircraft, and that was a fundamental flaw in their approach to warfare.
Historians say that, in early 1915, it was Germany who was winning the Great War. But when France and Great Britain entered the race with a new and bold aircraft to fight in the sky, the competition was over almost as soon as it began.
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By the Second World War, Germany’s air power had improved considerably, and became the organization known as the Luftwaffe, which wreaked havoc across Europe and bombed Britain. But when it came time for what we call the Battle of Britain, once again the fight for control of the skies stayed firmly within the hands of the British Royal Air Force.