is the largest online archive of world war 1 photographs and texts. the Archive of World War 1 Photographs and Texts
History of World War 1 The Western Front The Russian Front Italian Front The Middle East Air Warfare War at Sea
A First World War Soldier

Prev | Next | Contents



During the piping times of peace the utility of aircraft as weapons of offence was discussed freely in an academic manner. It was urged that the usefulness of such vessels in this particular field would be restricted to bomb-throwing. So far these contentions have been substantiated during the present campaign. At the same time it was averred that even as a bomb-thrower the ship of the air would prove an uncertain quantity, and that the results achieved would be quite contrary to expectations. Here again theory has been supported by practice, inasmuch as the damage wrought by bombs has been comparatively insignificant.

The Zeppelin raids upon Antwerp and Britain were a fiasco in the military sense. The damage inflicted by the bombs was not at all in proportion to the quantity of explosive used. True, in the case of Antwerp, it demoralised the civilian population somewhat effectively, which perhaps was the desired end, but the military results were nil.

The Zeppelin, and indeed all dirigibles of large size, have one advantage over aeroplanes. They are able to throw bombs of larger size and charged with greater quantities of high explosive and shrapnel than those which can be hurled from heavier-than-air machines. Thus it has been stated that the largest Zeppelins can drop single charges exceeding one ton in weight, but such a statement is not to be credited.

The shell generally used by the Zeppelin measures about 47 inches in length by 8 1/2 inches in diameter, and varies in weight from 200 to 242 pounds. Where destruction pure and simple is desired, the shell is charged with a high explosive such as picric acid or T.N.T., the colloquial abbreviation for the devastating agent scientifically known as "Trinitrotoluene," the base of which, in common with all the high explosives used by the different powers and variously known as lyddite, melinite, cheddite, and so forth, is picric acid. Such a bomb, if it strikes the objective, a building, for instance, fairly and squarely, may inflict widespread material damage.

On the other hand, where it is desired to scatter death, as well as destruction, far and wide, an elaborate form of shrapnel shell is utilised. The shell in addition to a bursting charge, contains bullets, pieces of iron, and other metallic fragments. When the shell bursts, their contents, together with the pieces of the shell which is likewise broken up by the explosion, are hurled in all directions over a radius of some 50 yards or more, according to the bursting charge.

These shells are fired upon impact, a detonator exploding the main charge. The detonator, comprising fulminate of mercury, is placed in the head or tail of the missile. To secure perfect detonation and to distribute the death-dealing contents evenly in all directions, it is essential that the bomb should strike the ground almost at right angles: otherwise the contents are hurled irregularly and perhaps in one direction only. One great objection to the percussion system, as the method of impact detonation is called, is that the damage may be localised. A bomb launched from a height of say 1,000 feet attains terrific velocity, due to the force of gravity in conjunction with its own weight, in consonance with the law concerning a falling body, by the time it reaches the ground. It buries itself to a certain depth before bursting so that the forces of the explosion become somewhat muffled as it were. A huge deep hole--a miniature volcano crater--is formed, while all the glass in the immediate vicinity of the explosion may be shattered by the concussion, and the walls of adjacent buildings be bespattered with shrapnel.

Although it is stated that an airship is able to drop a single missile weighing one ton in weight, there has been no attempt to prove the contention by practice. In all probability the heaviest shell launched from a Zeppelin has not exceeded 300 pounds. There is one cogent reason for such a belief. A bomb weighing one ton is equivalent to a similar weight of ballast. If this were discarded suddenly the equilibrium of the dirigible would be seriously disturbed--it would exert a tendency to fly upwards at a rapid speed. It is doubtful whether the planes controlling movement in the vertical plane would ever be able to counteract this enormous vertical thrust. Something would have to submit to the strain. Even if the dirigible displaced say 20 tons, and a bomb weighing one ton were discharged, the weight of the balloon would be decreased suddenly by approximately five per cent, so that it would shoot upwards at an alarming speed, and some seconds would elapse before control was regained.

The method of launching bombs from airships varies considerably. Some are released from a cradle, being tilted into position ready for firing, while others are discharged from a tube somewhat reminiscent of that used for firing torpedoes, with the exception that little or no initial impetus is imparted to the missile; the velocity it attains is essentially gravitational.

The French favour the tube-launching method since thereby it is stated to be possible to take more accurate aim. The objective is sighted and the bomb launched at the critical moment. In some instances the French employ an automatic detonator which corresponds in a certain measure to the time-fuse of a shrapnel shell fired from a gun.

The bomb-thrower reads the altitude of his airship as indicated by his barometer or other recording instrument, and by means of a table at his command ascertains in a moment the time which will elapse before the bomb strikes the ground. The automatic detonator is set in motion and the bomb released to explode approximately at the height to which it is set. When it bursts the full force of the explosion is distributed downwards and laterally. Owing to the difficulty of ensuring the explosion of the bomb at the exact height desired, it is also made to explode upon impact so as to make doubly sure of its efficacy.

Firing timed bombs from aloft, however, is not free from excitement and danger, as the experience of a French airman demonstrates. His dirigible had been commanded to make a night-raid upon a railway station which was a strategical junction for the movement of the enemy's troops. Although the hostile searchlights were active, the airship contrived to slip between the spokes of light without being observed. By descending to a comparatively low altitude the pilot was able to pick up the objective.

Three projectiles were discharged in rapid succession and then the searchlights, being concentrated, struck the airship, revealing its presence to the troops below. Instantly a spirited fusillade broke out. The airmen, by throwing ballast and other portable articles overboard pell-mell, rose rapidly, pursued by the hostile shells.

In the upward travel the bomb-thrower decided to have a parting shot. The airship was steadied momentarily to enable the range to be taken, the automatic detonator was set going and the bomb slipped into the launching tube. But for some reason or other the missile jambed.

The situation was desperate. In a few seconds the bomb would burst and shatter the airship. The bomb-thrower grabbed a tool and climbing into the rigging below hacked away at the bomb- throwing tube until the whole equipment was cut adrift and fell clear of the vessel. Almost instantly there was a terrific explosion in mid-air. The blast of air caused the vessel to roll and pitch in a disconcerting manner, but as the airman permitted the craft to continue its upward course unchecked, she soon steadied herself and was brought under control once more.

The bomb carried by aeroplanes differs consider ably from that used by dirigibles, is smaller and more convenient to handle, though considering its weight and size it is remarkably destructive. In this instance complete reliance is placed upon detonation by impact. The latest types of British war-plane bombs have been made particularly formidable, those employed in the "raids in force" ranging up to 95 pounds in weight.

The type of bomb which has proved to be the most successful is pear-shaped. The tail spindle is given an arrow-head shape, the vanes being utilised to steady the downward flight of the missile. In falling the bomb spins round, the rotating speed increasing as the projectile gathers velocity. The vanes act as a guide, keeping the projectile in as vertical a plane as possible, and ensuring that the rounded head shall strike the ground. The earlier types of bombs were not fitted with these vanes, the result being that sometimes they turned over and over as they fell through the air, while more often than not they failed to explode upon striking the ground.

The method of launching the bomb also varies considerably, experience not having indicated the most efficient method of consummating this end. In some cases the bombs are carried in a cradle placed beneath the aeroplane and launched merely by tilting them in a kind of sling, one by one, to enable them to drop to the ground, this action being controlled by means of a lever. In another instance they are dropped over the side of the car by the pilot, the tail of the bomb being fitted with a swivel and ring to facilitate the operation. Some of the French aviators favour a still simpler method. The bomb is attached to a thread and lowered over the side. At the critical moment it is released simply by severing the thread. Such aeroplane bombs, however, constitute a menace to the machine and to the pilot. Should the bomb be struck by hostile rifle or shell fire while the machine is aloft, an explosion is probable; while should the aero plane make an abrupt descent the missiles are likely to be detonated.

A bomb which circumvents this menace and which in fact will explode only when it strikes the ground is that devised by Mr. Marten-Hale. This projectile follows the usual pear-shape, and has a rotating tail to preserve direction when in flight. The detonator is held away from the main charge by a collar and ball-bearing which are held in place by the projecting end of a screw-releasing spindle. When the bomb is dropped the rotating tail causes the spindle to screw upwards until the projection moves away from the steel balls, thereby allowing them to fall inward when the collar and the detonator are released. In order to bring about this action the bomb must have a fall of at least 200 feet.

When the bomb strikes the ground the detonator falls down on the charge, fires the latter, and thus brings about the bursting of the bomb. The projectile is of the shrapnel type. It weighs 20 pounds complete, is charged with some four pounds of T.N.T., and carries 340 steel balls, which represent a weight of 5 3/4 pounds.

The firing mechanism is extremely sensitive and the bomb will burst upon impact with the hull of an airship, water, or soft soil. This projectile, when discharged, speedily assumes the vertical position, so that there is every probability that it will strike the ground fairly and squarely, although at the same time such an impact is not imperative, because it will explode even if the angle of incidence be only 5 degrees. It is remarkably steady in its flight, the balancing and the design of the tail frustrating completely any tendency to wobble or to turn turtle while falling.

Other types of missile may be used. For instance, incendiary bombs have been thrown with success in certain instances. These bombs are similar in shape to the shrapnel projectile, but are charged with petrol or some other equally highly inflammable mixture, and fitted with a detonator. When they strike the objective the bursting charge breaks up the shell, releasing the contents, and simultaneously ignites the combustible.

Another shell is the smoke-bomb, which, up to the present, has been used only upon a restricted scale. This missile is charged with a certain quantity of explosive to burst the shell, and a substance which, when ignited, emits copious clouds of dense smoke. The scope of such a shell is somewhat restricted, it is used only for the purpose of obstructing hostile artillery fire. The shells are dropped in front of the artillery position and the clouds of smoke which are emitted naturally inter fere with the operations of the gunners. These bombs have also been used with advantage to denote the position of concealed hostile artillery, although their utility in this connection is somewhat uncertain, owing to the difficulty of dropping the bomb so accurately as to enable the range-finders to pick up the range.

Dropping bombs from aloft appears to be a very simple operation, but as a matter of fact it is an extremely difficult matter to strike the target, especially from a high altitude. So far as the aeroplane is concerned it is somewhat at a disadvantage as compared with the airship, as the latter is able to hover over a position, and, if a spring-gun is employed to impart an initial velocity to the missile, there is a greater probability of the projectile striking the target provided it has been well-aimed. But even then other conditions are likely to arise, such as air-currents, which may swing the missile to one side of the objective. Consequently adequate allowance has to be made for windage, which is a very difficult factor to calculate from aloft.

Bomb-dropping from an aeroplane is even more difficult. If for instance the aeroplane is speeding along at 60 miles an hour, the bomb when released will have a speed in the horizontal plane of 60 miles an hour, because momentarily it is travelling at the speed of the aeroplane. Consequently the shell will describe a curved trajectory, somewhat similar to that shown in Fig. 7.

On the other hand, if the aeroplane is travelling slowly, say at 20 miles an hour, the curve of the trajectory will be flatter, and if a head wind be prevailing it may even be swept backwards somewhat after it has lost its forward momentum, and describe a trajectory similar to that in Fig. 8.

A bomb released from an altitude of 1000 feet seldom, if ever, makes a bee-line for the earth, even if dropped from a stationary airship. Accordingly, the airman has to release the bomb before he reaches the target below. The determination of the critical moment for the release is not easy, inasmuch as the airman has to take into his calculations the speed of his machine, his altitude, and the direction and velocity of the air-currents.

The difficulty of aiming has been demonstrated upon several occasions at aviation meetings and other similar gatherings. Monsieur Michelin, who has done so much for aviation in France, offered a prize of L1,00--$5,000--in 1912 for bomb-dropping from an aeroplane. The target was a rectangular space marked out upon the ground, measuring 170 feet long by 40 feet broad, and the missiles had to be dropped from a height of 2,400 feet. The prize was won by the well-known American airman, Lieutenant Riley E. Scott, formerly of the United States Army. He dropped his bombs in groups of three. The first round fell clear of the target, but eight of the remaining missiles fell within the area.

In the German competition which was held at Gotha in September of the same year the results were somewhat disappointing. Two targets were provided. The one represented a military bivouac occupying a superficies of 330 square feet, and the other a captive balloon resembling a Zeppelin. The prizes offered were L500, L200, and L80--$2,500, $1,000 and $400--respectively, and were awarded to those who made the greatest number of hits. The conditions were by no means so onerous as those imposed in the Michelin contest, inasmuch as the altitude limit was set at 660 feet, while no machine was to descend within 165 feet. The first competitor completely failed to hit the balloon. The second competitor flying at 800 feet landed seven bombs within the square, but only one other competitor succeeded in placing one bomb within the space.

Bomb-dropping under the above conditions, however, is vastly dissimilar from such work under the grim realities of war. The airman has to act quickly, take his enemy by surprise, avail himself of any protective covering which may exist, and incur great risks. The opposing forces are overwhelmingly against him. The modern rifle, if fired vertically into the air, will hurl the bullet to a height of about 5,000 feet, while the weapons which have been designed to combat aircraft have a range of 10,000 feet or more.

At the latter altitude aggressive tactics are useless. The airman is unable to obtain a clear sharp view of the country beneath owing to the interference offered to vision by atmospheric haze, even in the dearest of weather. In order to obtain reasonable accuracy of aim the corsair of the sky must fly at about 400 feet. In this respect, however, the aeroplane is at a decided advantage, as compared with the dirigible. The machine offers a considerably smaller target and moves with much greater speed. Experience of the war has shown that to attempt to hurl bombs from an extreme height is merely a waste of ammunition. True, they do a certain amount of damage, but this is due to luck, not judgment.

For success in aerial bomb operations the human element is mainly responsible. The daring airman is likely to achieve the greatest results, as events have proved, especially when his raid is sudden and takes the enemy by surprise. The raids carried out by Marix, Collet, Briggs, Babington, Sippe and many others have established this fact incontrovertibly. In all these operations the airmen succeeded because of their intrepidity and their decision to take advantage of cover, otherwise a prevailing mist or low-lying clouds. Flight-Lieutenant Collet approached the Zeppelin shed at Dusseldorf at an altitude of 6,000 feet. There was a bank of mist below, which he encountered at 1,500 feet. He traversed the depth of this layer and emerged therefrom at a height of only 400 feet above the ground. His objective was barely a quarter of a mile ahead. Travelling at high speed he launched his bombs with what proved to be deadly precision, and disappeared into cover almost before the enemy had grasped his intentions. Lieutenant-Commander, now Flight-Commander, Marix was even more daring. Apparently he had no mist in which to conceal himself but trusted almost entirely to the speed of his machine, which probably at times notched 90 miles per hour. Although his advent was detected and he was greeted with a spirited fusillade he clung to his determined idea. He headed straight for the Zeppelin shed, launched two bombs and swung into the higher reaches of the air without a moment's hesitation. His aim was deadly, since both bombs found their mark, and the Zeppelin docked within was blown up. The intrepid airman experienced several narrow escapes, for his aeroplane was struck twenty times, and one or two of the control wires were cut by passing bullets.

The raid carried out by Commanders Briggs and Babington in company with Lieutenant Sippe upon the Zeppelin workshops at Friedrichshafen was even more daring. Leaving the Allies' lines they ascended to an altitude of 4,500 feet, and at this height held to the pre-arranged course until they encountered a mist, which while protecting them from the alert eyes of the enemy below, was responsible for the separation of the raiders, so that each was forced to act independently and to trust to the compass to bring him out of the ordeal successfully. Lieutenant Sippe sighted Lake Constance, and taking advantage of the mist lying low upon the water, descended to such an extent that he found himself only a few feet above the roofs of the houses. Swinging roundto the Lake he descended still lower until at last he was practically skimming the surface of the Lake, since he flew at the amazingly low height of barely seven feet off the water. There is no doubt that the noise of his motor was heard plainly by the enemy, but the mist completely enveloped him, and owing to the strange pranks that fog plays with sound deceived his antagonists.

At last, climbing above the bank of vapour, he found that he had overshot the mark, so he turned quickly and sped backwards. At the same time he discovered that he had been preceded by Commander Briggs, who was bombarding the shed furiously, and who himself was the object of a concentrated fire. Swooping down once more, Lieutenant Sippe turned, rained his bombs upon the objective beneath, drawing fire upon himself, but co-operating with Commander Babington, who had now reached the scene, he manoeuvred above the works and continued the bombardment until their ammunition was expended, when they sped home-wards under the cover of the mist. Considering the intensity of the hostile fire, it is surprising that the aeroplanes were not smashed to fragments. Undoubtedly the high speed of the machines and the zigzagging courses which were followed nonplussed the enemy. Commander Briggs was not so fortunate as his colleagues; a bullet pierced his petrol tank, compelling a hurried descent.

The most amazing feature of these aerial raids has been the remarkably low height at which the airmen have ventured to fly. While such a procedure facilitates marksmanship it increases the hazards. The airmen have to trust implicitly to the fleetness of their craft and to their own nerve. Bearing in mind the vulnerability of the average aeroplane, and the general absence of protective armouring against rifle fire at almost point-blank range, it shows the important part which the human element is compelled to play in bomb-dropping operations.

Another missile which has been introduced by the French airmen, and which is extremely deadly when hurled against dense masses of men, is the steel arrow, or "flechette" as it is called. It is a fiendish projectile consisting in reality of a pencil of solid polished steel, 4 3/4 inches in length. The lower end has a sharp tapering point, 5/8ths of an inch in length. For a distance of 1 1/8th of an inch above this point the cylindrical form of the pencil is preserved, but for the succeeding three inches to the upper end, the pencil is provided with four equally spaced angle flanges or vanes. This flanging of the upper end or tail ensures the arrow spinning rapidly as it falls through the air, and at the same times preserves its vertical position during its descent. The weight of the arrow is two-thirds of an ounce.

The method of launching this fearsome projectile is ingenious. A hundred or even more are packed in a vertical position in a special receptacle, placed upon the floor of the aeroplane, preferably near the foot of the pilot or observer. This receptacle is fitted with a bottom moving in the manner of a trap-door, and is opened by pressing a lever. The aviator has merely to depress this pedal with his foot, when the box is opened and the whole of the contents are released. The fall at first is somewhat erratic, but this is an advantage, as it enables the darts to scatter and to cover a wide area. As the rotary motion of the arrows increases during the fall, the direct line of flight becomes more pronounced until at last they assume a vertical direction free from all wobbling, so that when they alight upon the target they are quite plumb.

When launched from a height they strike the objective with terrific force, and will readily penetrate a soldier's helmet and skull. Indeed, when released at a height of 4,000 feet they have been known to pierce a mounted soldier's head, and pass vertically through his body and that of his horse also. Time after time German soldiers have found themselves pinned to the ground through the arrow striking and penetrating their feet. Owing to the extremely light weight of the darts they can be launched in batches of hundreds at a time, and in a promiscuous manner when the objective is a massed body of infantry or cavalry, or a transport convoy. They are extremely effective when thrown among horses even from a comparatively low altitude, not so much from the fatalities they produce, as from the fact that they precipitate a stampede among the animals, which is generally sufficiently serious and frantic to throw cavalry or a transport-train into wild confusion.

Although aerial craft, when skilfully handled, have proved highly successful as weapons of offence, the possibilities of such aggression as yet are scarcely realised; aerial tactics are in their infancy. Developments are moving rapidly. Great efforts are being centred upon the evolution of more formidable missiles to be launched from the clouds. The airman is destined to inspire far greater awe than at present, to exercise a still more demoralising influence, and to work infinitely more destruction.

Prev | Next | Contents