|History of World War 1||The Western Front||The Russian Front||Italian Front||The Middle East||Air Warfare||War at Sea|
SCOUTING FROM THE SKIES
From the moment when human flight was lifted from the rut of experiment to the field of practical application, many theories, interesting and illuminating, concerning the utility of the Fourth Arm as a military unit were advanced. The general consensus of expert opinion was that the flying machine would be useful to glean information concerning the movements of an enemy, rather than as a weapon of offence.
The war is substantiating this argument very completely. Although bomb-dropping is practised somewhat extensively, the results achieved are rather moral than material in their effects. Here and there startling successes have been recorded especially upon the British side, but these triumphs are outnumbered by the failures in this direction, and merely serve to emphasise the views of the theorists.
The argument was also advanced that, in this particular work, the aeroplane would prove more valuable than the dirigible, but actual campaigning has proved conclusively that the dirigible and the heavier-than-air machines have their respective fields of utility in the capacity of scouts. In fact in the very earliest days of the war, the British airships, though small and slow in movement, proved more serviceable for this duty than their dynamic consorts. This result was probably due to the fact that military strategy and tactics were somewhat nonplussed by the appearance of this new factor. At the time it was an entirely unknown quantity. It is true that aircraft had been employed in the Balkan and the Italo-Ottoman campaigns, but upon such a limited scale as to afford no comprehensive idea of their military value and possibilities.
The belligerents, therefore, were caught somewhat at a disadvantage, and an appreciable period of time elapsed before the significance of the aerial force could be appreciated, while means of counter acting or nullifying its influences had to be evolved simultaneously, and according to the exigencies of the moment. At all events, the protagonists were somewhat loth to utilise the dirigible upon an elaborate scale or in an aggressive manner. It was employed more after the fashion of a captive balloon, being sent aloft from a point well behind the front lines of the force to which it was attached, and well out of the range of hostile guns. Its manoeuvres were somewhat circumscribed, and were carried out at a safe distance from the enemy, dependence being placed upon the advantages of an elevated position for the gathering of information.
But as the campaign progressed, the airships became more daring. Their ability to soar to a great height offered them complete protection against gun-fire, and accordingly sallies over the hostile lines were carried out. But even here a certain hesitancy became manifest. This was perfectly excusable, for the simple reason that the dirigible, above all, is a fair-weather craft, and disasters, which had overtaken these vessels time after time, rendered prudence imperative. Moreover, but little was known of the range and destructiveness of anti-aircraft guns.
In the duty of reconnoitring the dirigible possesses one great advantage over its heavier-than-air rival. It can remain virtually stationary in the air, the propellers revolving at just sufficient speed to off-set the wind and tendencies to drift. In other words, it has the power of hovering over a position, thereby enabling the observers to complete their task carefully and with deliberation.
On the other hand, the means of enabling an aeroplane to hover still remain to be discovered. It must travel at a certain speed through the air to maintain its dynamic equilibrium, and this speed is often too high to enable the airman to complete his reconnaissance with sufficient accuracy to be of value to the forces below. All that the aeroplane can do is to circle above a certain position until the observer is satisfied with the data he has collected.
But hovering on the part of the dirigible is not without conspicuous drawbacks. The work of observation cannot be conducted with any degree of accuracy at an excessive altitude. Experience has proved that the range of the latest types of anti- aircraft weapons is in excess of anticipations. The result is that the airship is useless when hovering beyond the zone of fire. The atmospheric haze, even in the clearest weather, obstructs the observer's vision. The caprices of this obstacle are extraordinary, as anyone who has indulged in ballooning knows fully well. On a clear summer's day I have been able to see the ground beneath with perfect distinctness from a height of 4,500 feet, yet when the craft had ascended a further two or three hundred feet, the panorama was blurred. A film of haze lies between the balloon and the ground beneath. And the character of this haze is continually changing, so that the aerial observer's task is rendered additionally difficult. Its effects are particularly notice able when one attempts to photograph the view unfolded below. Plate after plate may be exposed and nothing will be revealed. Yet at a slightly lower altitude the plates may be exposed and perfectly sharp and well-defined images will be obtained.
Seeing that the photographic eye is keener and more searching than the human organ of sight, it is obvious that this haze constitutes a very formidable obstacle. German military observers, who have accompanied the Zeppelins and Parsevals on numerous aerial journeys under varying conditions of weather, have repeatedly drawn attention to this factor and its caprices, and have not hesitated to venture the opinion that it would interfere seriously with military aerial reconnaissances, and also that it would tend to render such work extremely hazardous at times.
When these conditions prevail the dirigible must carry out its work upon the broad lines of the aeroplane. It must descend to the level where a clear view of the ground may be obtained, and in the interests of safety it has to keep on the move. To attempt to hover within 4,000 feet of the ground is to court certain disaster, inasmuch as the vessel offers a magnificent and steady target which the average gunner, equipped with the latest sighting devices and the most recent types of guns, scarcely could fail to hit.
But the airman in the aeroplane is able to descend to a comparatively low level in safety. The speed and mobility of his machine constitute his protection. He can vary his altitude, perhaps only thirty or forty feet, with ease and rapidity, and this erratic movement is more than sufficient to perplex the marksmen below, although the airman is endangered if a rafale is fired in such a manner as to cover a wide zone.
Although the aeroplane may travel rapidly it is not too fleet for a keen observer who is skilled in his peculiar task. He may only gather a rough idea of the disposition of troops, their movements, the lines of communication, and other details which are indispensable to his commander, but in the main the intelligence will be fairly accurate. Undulating flight enables him to determine speedily the altitude at which he is able to obtain the clearest views of the country beneath. Moreover, owing to his speed he is able to complete his task in far less time than his colleague operating in the dirigible, the result being that the information placed at the disposal of his superior officers is more to the moment, and accordingly of greater value.
Reconnoitring by aeroplane may be divided into two broad categories, which, though correlated to a certain degree, are distinctive, because each constitutes a specific phase in military operations. They are known respectively as "tactical" and "strategical" movements. The first is somewhat limited in its scope as compared with the latter, and has invariably to be carried out rapidly, whereas the strategical reconnaissance may occupy several hours.
The tactical reconnaissance concerns the corps or divisional commander to which the warplane is attached, and consequently its task is confined to the observation of the line immediately facing the particular corps or division. The aviator does not necessarily penetrate beyond the lines of the enemy, but, as a rule limits his flight to some distance from his outermost defences. The airman must possess a quick eye, because his especial duty is to note the disposition of the troops immediately facing him, the placing of the artillery, and any local movements of the forces that may be in progress. Consequently the aviator engaged on this service may be absent from his lines for only a few minutes, comparatively speaking; the intelligence he acquires must be speedily communicated to the force to which he is attached, because it may influence a local movement.
The strategical reconnaissance, on the other hand, affects the whole plan of campaign. The aviators told off for this duty are attached to the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, and the work has to be carried out upon a far more comprehensive and elaborate scale, while the airmen are called upon to penetrate well into the hostile territory to a point thirty, forty, or more miles beyond the outposts.
The procedure is to instruct the flier either to carry out his observations of the territory generally, or to report at length upon a specified stretch of country. In the latter event he may fly to and fro over the area in question until he has acquired all the data it is possible to collect. His work not only comprises the general disposition of troops, defences, placing of artillery, points where reserves are being held, high-roads, railways, base camps, and so forth, but he is also instructed to bring back as correct an idea as possible of what the enemy proposes to do, so that his Commander-in-Chief may adjust his moves accordingly. In order to perform this task with the requisite degree of thoroughness it is often necessary for the airman to remain in the air for several hours continuously, not returning, in fact, until he has completed the allotted duty.
The airman engaged in strategical aerial reconnaissance must possess, above all things, what is known as a "military" eye concerning the country he traverses. He must form tolerably correct estimates of the forces beneath and their character. He must possess the ability to read a map rapidly as he moves through the air and to note upon it all information which is likely to be of service to the General Staff. The ability to prepare military sketches rapidly and intelligibly is a valuable attribute, and skill in aerial photography is a decidedly useful acquisition.
Such men must be of considerable stamina, inasmuch as great demands are made upon their powers of endurance. Being aloft for several hours imposes a severe tax upon the nervous system, while it must also be borne in mind that all sorts and conditions of weather are likely to be encountered, more particularly during the winter. Hail, rain, and blizzards may be experienced in turn, while the extreme cold which often prevails in the higher altitudes during the winter season is a fearful enemy to combat. Often an airman upon his return from such a reconnaissance has been discovered to be so numbed and dazed as a result of the prolonged exposure, that considerable time has elapsed before he has been sufficiently restored to set forth the results of his observations in a coherent, intelligible manner for the benefit of the General Staff. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the most skilful and experienced aviators are generally reserved for this particular work. In addition to the natural accidents to which the strategical aerial observer is exposed, the dangers arising from hostile gun-fire must not be overlooked. He is manoeuvring the whole time over the enemy's firing zone, where anti-aircraft weapons are disposed strategically, and where every effort is made by artillery to bring him down, or compel him to repair to such a height as to render observation with any degree of accuracy well-nigh impossible.
The methods practised by the German aerial scout vary widely, and are governed in no small measure by the intrepidity and skill of the airman himself. One practice is to proceed alone upon long flights over the enemy's lines, penetrating just as far into hostile territory as the pilot considers advisable, and keeping, of course, within the limits of the radius of action of the machine, as represented by the fuel supply, the while carefully taking mental stock of all that he observes below. It is a kind of roving commission without any definite aim in view beyond the collection of general intelligence.
This work, while productive and valuable to a certain degree, is attended with grave danger, as the German airmen have repeatedly found to their cost. Success is influenced very materially by the accuracy of the airman's judgment. A slight miscalculation of the velocity and direction of the wind, or failure to detect any variations in the climatic conditions, is sufficient to prove his undoing. German airmen who essayed journeys of discovery in this manner, often failed to regain their lines because they ventured too far, misjudged the speed of the wind which was following them on the outward run, and ultimately were forced to earth owing to the exhaustion of the fuel supply during the homeward trip; the increased task imposed upon the motor, which had to battle hard to make headway, caused the fuel consumption per mile to exceed calculations.
Then the venturesome airman cannot neglect another factor which is adverse to his success. Hostile airmen lie in wait, and a fleet of aeroplanes is kept ready for instant service. They permit the invader to penetrate well into their territory and then ascend behind him to cut off his retreat. True, the invader has the advantage of being on the wing, while the ether is wide and deep, without any defined channels of communication. But nine times out of ten the adventurous scout is trapped. His chances of escape are slender, because his antagonists dispose themselves strategically in the air. The invader outpaces one, but in so doing comes within range of another. He is so harassed that he either has to give fight, or, finding his retreat hopelessly cut off, he makes a determined dash, trusting to his high speed to carry him to safety. In these driving tactics the French and British airmen have proved themselves adepts, more particularly the latter, as the chase appeals to their sporting instincts. There is nothing so exhilarating as a quarry who displays a determination to run the gauntlet.
The roving Teuton scout was considerably in evidence in the early days of the war, but two or three weeks' experience emphasised the sad fact that, in aerial strategy, he was hopelessly outmatched by his opponents. His advantage of speed was nullified by the superior tactical and strategical acumen of his antagonists, the result being that the German airman, who has merely been trained along certain lines, who is in many cases nothing more than a cog-wheel in a machine, and who is proverbially slow-witted, has concluded that he is no match for the airmen of the Allies. He found from bitter experience that nothing afforded the Anglo-French military aviators such keen delight as to lie in wait for a "rover," and then to swoop into the air to round him up.
The proportion of these individual scouts who were either brought down, or only just succeeded in reaching safety within their own lines, and who were able to exhibit serious wounds as evidence of the severity of the aerial tussle, or the narrowness of the escape, has unnerved the Teuton airmen as a body to a very considerable extent. Often, even when an aeroplane descended within the German lines, it was found that the roving airman had paid the penalty for his rashness with his life, so that his journey had proved in vain, because all the intelligence he had gained had died with him, or, if committed to paper, was so unintelligible as to prove useless.
It was the success of the British airmen in this particular field of duty which was responsible for the momentous declaration in Field-Marshal Sir John French's famous despatch:--"The British Flying Corps has succeeded in establishing an individual ascendancy, which is as serviceable to us as it is damaging to the enemy . . . . The enemy have been less enterprising in their flights. Something in the direction of the mastery of the air has already been gained."
The methods of the British airmen are in vivid contrast to the practice of the venturesome Teuton aerial rovers described above. While individual flights are undertaken they are not of unknown duration or mileage. The man is given a definite duty to perform and he ascends merely to fulfil it, returning with the information at the earliest possible moment. It is aerial scouting with a method. The intelligence is required and obtained for a specific purpose, to govern a contemplated move in the grim game of war.
Even then the flight is often undertaken by two or more airmen for the purpose of checking and counterchecking information gained, or to ensure such data being brought back to headquarters, since it is quite possible that one of the party may fall a victim to hostile fire. By operating upon these lines there is very little likelihood of the mission proving a complete failure. Even when raids upon certain places such as Dusseldorf, Friedrichshafen or Cuxhaven are planned, complete dependence is not placed on one individual. The machine is accompanied, so that the possibility of the appointed task being consummated is transformed almost into a certainty.
The French flying men work upon broadly similar lines. Their fleet is divided into small squadrons each numbering four, six, or more machines, according to the nature of the contemplated task. Each airman is given an area of territory which is to be reconnoitred thoroughly. In this way perhaps one hundred or more miles of the enemy's front are searched for information at one and the same time. The units of the squadron start out, each taking the appointed direction according to the preconceived plan, and each steering by the aid of compass and map. They are urged to complete the work with all speed and to return to a secret rendezvous.
Later the air is alive with the whirring of motors. The machines are coming back and all converging to one point. They vol-plane to the earth and gracefully settle down within a short distance of each other at the rendezvous. The pilots collect and each relates the intelligence he has gained. The data are collated and in this manner the General Staff is able to learn exactly what is transpiring over a long stretch of the hostile lines, and a considerable distance to the rear of his advance works. Possibly five hundred square miles have been reconnoitred in this manner. Troops have been massed here, lines of communication extend somewhere else, while convoys are moving at a third place. But all has been observed, and the commanding officer is in a position to re-arrange his forces accordingly. It is a remarkable example of method in military tactics and strategy, and conveys a striking idea of the degree to which aerial operations have been organised.
After due deliberation it is decided that the convoys shall be raided, or that massed troops shall be thrown into confusion, if not dispersed. The squadron is ordered to prepare for another aerial journey. The roads along which the convoys are moving are indicated upon the map, or the position of the massed troops in bivouac is similarly shown. The airmen load their machines with a full charge of bombs. When all is ready the leader ascends, followed in rapid succession by the other units, and they whirr through the air in single file. It now becomes a grim game of follow-my-leader.
The leader detects the convoy, swoops down, suddenly launches his missiles, and re-ascends. He does not deviate a foot from his path to observe the effects of his discharge, as the succeeding aeroplane is close behind him. If the leader has missed then the next airman may correct his error. One after another the machines repeat the manoeuvre, in precisely the same manner as the units of a battleship squadron emulate the leading vessel when attacking the foe. The tactical evolutions have been laid down, and there is rigid adherence thereto, because only thereby may success be achieved. When the last war-plane has completed its work, the leader swings round and repeats the dash upon the foe. A hail of bullets may scream around the men in the air, but one and all follow faithfully in the leader's trail. One or more machines may fail in the attack, and may even meet with disaster, but nothing interferes with the movements of the squadron as a whole. It is the homogeneity of the attacking fleet which tells, and which undermines the moral of the enemy, even if it does not wreak decisive material devastation. The work accomplished to the best of their ability, the airmen speed back to their lines in the same formation.
At first sight reconnoitring from aloft may appear a simple operation, but a little reflection will reveal the difficulties and arduousness of the work. The observer, whether he be specially deputed, or whether the work be placed in the hand of the pilot himself--in this event the operation is rendered additionally trying, as he also has to attend to his machine must keep his eyes glued to the ground beneath and at the same time be able to read the configuration of the panorama revealed to him. He must also keep in touch with his map and compass, so as to be positive of his position and direction. He must be a first-class judge of distances and heights.
When flying rapidly at a height of 4,000 feet or more, the country below appears as a perfect plane, or flat stretch, although as a matter of fact it may be extremely undulating. Consequently, it is by no means a simple matter to distinguish eminences and depressions, or to determine the respective and relative heights of hills.
If a rough sketch is required, the observer must be rapid in thought, quick in determination, and facile with his pencil, as the machine, no matter how it may be slowed down, is moving at a relatively high speed. He must consult his map and compass frequently, since an airman who loses his bearings is useless to his commander-in-chief. He must have an eagle eye, so as to be able to search the country unfolded below, in order to gather all the information which is likely to be of value to his superior officers. He must be able to judge accurately the numbers of troops arrayed beneath him, the lines of the defensive works, to distinguish the defended from the dummy lines which are thrown up to baffle him, and to detect instantly the movement of the troops and the direction, as well as the roads, along which they are proceeding. Reserves and their complement, artillery, railway-lines, roads, and bridges, if any, over streams and railways must be noted--in short he must obtain an eye photograph of the country he observes and grasp exactly what is happening there. In winter, with the thermometer well down, a blood-freezing wind blowing, wreaths of clouds drifting below and obscuring vision for minutes at a time, the rain possibly pelting down as if presaging a second deluge, the plight of the vigilant human eye aloft is far from enviable.
Upon the return of the machine to its base, the report must be prepared without delay. The picture recorded by the eye has to be set down clearly and intelligibly with the utmost speed. The requisite indications must be made accurately upon the map. Nothing of importance must be omitted: the most trivial detail is often of vital importance.
A facile pencil is of inestimable value in such operations. While aloft the observer does not trust to his memory or his eye picture, but commits the essential factors to paper in the form of a code, or what may perhaps be described more accurately as a shorthand pictorial interpretation of the things he has witnessed. To the man in the street such a record would be unintelligible, but it is pregnant with meaning, and when worked out for the guidance of the superior officers is a mass of invaluable detail.
At times it so happens that the airman has not been able to complete his duty within the time anticipated by those below. But he has gathered certain information which he wishes to communicate without coming to earth. Such data may be dropped from the clouds in the form of maps or messages. Although wireless telegraphy is available for this purpose, it suffers from certain drawbacks. If the enemy possesses an equipment which is within range of that of the air-craft and the force to which it belongs, communications may be nullified by the enemy throwing out a continuous stream of useless signals which "jamb" the intelligence of their opponents.
If a message--written in code--or a map is to be dropped from aloft it is enclosed within a special metallic cylinder, fitted with a vane tail to ensure direction of flight when launched, and with a detonating head. This is dropped overboard. When it strikes the ground the detonator fires a charge which emits a report without damaging the message container, and at the same time fires a combustible charge emitting considerable smoke. The noise attracts anyone in the vicinity of the spot where the message has fallen, while at the same time the clouds of smoke guide one to the point and enable the cylinder to be recovered. This device is extensively used by the German aviators, and has proved highly serviceable; a similar contrivance is adopted by French airmen.
There is one phase of aerial activity which remains to be demonstrated. This is the utilisation of aerial craft by the defenders of a besieged position such as a ring of fortifications or fortified city. The utility of the Fourth Arm in this province has been the subject of considerable speculation. Expert opinion maintains that the advantage in this particular connection would rest with the besiegers. The latter would be able to ascertain the character of the defences and the defending gun-force, by means of the aerial scout, who would prove of inestimable value in directing the fire of the besieging forces.
On the other hand it is maintained that an aerial fleet would be useless to the beleaguered. In the first place the latter would experience grave difficulties in ascertaining the positions of the attacking and fortress-reducing artillery, inasmuch as this could be masked effectively, and it is thought that the aerial force of the besieged would be speedily reduced to impotence, since it would be subjected to an effective concentrated fire from the ring of besieging anti-aircraft guns and other weapons. In other words, the theory prevails that an aerial fleet, no matter how efficient, would be rendered ineffective for the simple reason that it would be the initial object of the besieger's attack. Possibly the stem test of experience will reveal the fallacy of these contentions as emphatically as it has disproved others. But there is one point upon which authorities are unanimous. If the artillery of the investing forces is exposed and readily distinguishable, the aerial forces of the beleaguered will bring about its speedy annihilation, as the defensive artillery will be concentrated upon that of the besiegers.