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



In a previous chapter the various methods of signalling between the ground and the airman aloft have been described. Seeing that wireless telegraphy has made such enormous strides and has advanced to such a degree of perfection, one naturally would conclude that it constitutes an ideal system of communication under such conditions in military operations.

But this is not the case. Wireless is utilised only to a very limited extent. This is due to two causes. The one is of a technical, the other of a strategical character.

The uninitiated, bearing in mind the comparative ease with which wireless installations may be established at a relatively small expense, would not unreasonably think that no serious difficulties of a technical character could arise: at least none which would defy solution. But these difficulties exist in two or three different fields, each of which is peculiarly complex and demands individual treatment.

In the first place, there is the weight of the necessary installation. In the case of the dirigible this may be a secondary consideration, but with the aeroplane it is a matter of primary and vital importance. Again, under present conditions, the noise of the motor is apt to render the intelligent deciphering of messages while aloft a matter of extreme difficulty, especially as these are communicated in code. The engine noise might be effectively overcome by the use of a muffler such as, is used with automobiles, but then there is the further difficulty of vibration.

This problem is being attacked in an ingenious manner. It is proposed to substitute for audible signals visual interpretations, by the aid of an electric lamp, the fluctuations in which would correspond to the dots and dashes of the Morse code. Thus the airman would read his messages by sight instead of by sound.

This method, however, is quite in its infancy, and although attractive in theory and fascinating as a laboratory experiment or when conducted under experimental conditions, it has not proved reliable or effective in aeronautical operations. But at the same time it indicates a promising line of research and development.

Then there are the problems of weight and the aerial. So far as present knowledge goes, the most satisfactory form of aerial yet exploited is that known as the trailing wire. From 300 to 700 feet of wire are coiled upon a reel, and when aloft this wire is paid out so that it hangs below the aeroplane. As a matter of fact,when the machine is travelling at high speed it trails horizontally astern, but this is immaterial. One investigator, who strongly disapproves of the trailing aerial, has carried out experiments with a network of wires laid upon and attached to the surface of the aeroplane's wings. But the trailing wire is generally preferred, and certainly up to the present has proved more satisfactory.

The greatest obstacle, however, is the necessary apparatus. The average aeroplane designed for military duty is already loaded to the maximum. As a rule it carries the pilot and an observer, and invariably includes a light arm for defence against an aerial enemy, together with an adequate supply of ammunition, while unless short sharp flights are to be made, the fuel supply represents an appreciable load. Under these circumstances the item of weight is a vital consideration. It must be kept within a limit of 100 pounds, and the less the equipment weighs the more satisfactory it is likely to prove, other things being equal.

The two most successful systems yet exploited are the Dubilier and the Rouget. The former is an American invention, the latter is of French origin. Both have been tested by the British Military Aeronautical Department, and the French authorities have subjected the French system to rigorous trials. Both systems, within their limitations, have proved satisfactory.

The outstanding feature of the Dubilier system is the production of sine waves of musical frequency from continuous current, thus dispensing with the rotary converter. The operating principle is the obtaining of a series of unidirectional impulses by a condenser discharge, the pulsating currents following one another at regular intervals at a frequency of 500 impulses per second, which may be augmented up to 1,000 impulses per second. The complete weight of such an apparatus is 40 pounds; the electric generator, which is no larger than the motor used for driving the ordinary table ventilating fan, accounts for 16 pounds of this total. Under test at sea, upon the deck of a ship, a range of 250 miles has been obtained. The British Government carried out a series of experiments with this system, using a small plant weighing about 30 pounds, with which communication was maintained up to about 20 miles.

In the French system the Reuget transmitter is employed. The apparatus, including the dynamo, which is extremely small, weighs in all 70 pounds. A small alternator of 200 watts and 100 volts is coupled direct to the aeroplane motor, a new clutch coupler being employed for this purpose. By means of a small transformer the voltage is raised to 30,000 volts, at which the condenser is charged. In this instance the musical spark method is employed.

The whole of the high tension wiring is placed within a small space so as not to endanger the pilot, while the transformer is hermetically sealed in a box with paraffin. The aerial comprises a trailing wire 100 feet in length, which, however, can be wound in upon its reel within 15 seconds. This reeled antenna, moreover, is fitted with a safety device whereby the wire can be cut adrift in the event of an accident befalling the aeroplane and necessitating an abrupt descent. With this apparatus the French authorities have been able to maintain communication over a distance of 30 miles.

In maintaining ethereal communication with aeroplanes, however, a portable or mobile station upon the ground is requisite, and this station must be within the radius of the aerial transmitter, if messages are to be received from aloft with any degree of accuracy and reliability. Thus it will be recognised that the land station is as important as the aeroplane equipment, and demands similar consideration.

A wide variety of systems have been employed to meet these conditions. There is the travelling automobile station, in which the installation is mounted upon a motor-car. In this instance the whole equipment is carried upon a single vehicle, while the antenna is stowed upon the roof and can be raised or lowered within a few seconds. If motor traction is unavailable, then animal haulage may be employed, but in this instance the installation is divided between two vehicles, one carrying the transmitting and receiving apparatus and the generating plant, the other the fuel supplies and the aerial, together with spare parts.

The motive power is supplied by a small air cooled petrol or gasoline motor developing eight horse-power, and coupled direct to a 2-kilo watt alternator. At one end of the shaft of the latter the disk discharger is mounted, its function being to break up the train of waves into groups of waves, so as to impart a musical sound to the note produced in the receiver. A flexible cable transmits the electric current from the generator to the wagon containing the instruments. The aerial is built up of masts carried in sections.

The Germans employ a mobile apparatus which is very similar, but in this instance the mast is telescopic. When closed it occupies but little space. By turning the winch handle the mast is extended, and can be carried to any height up to a maximum of about 100 feet. The capacity of these mobile stations varies within wide limits, the range of the largest and most powerful installations being about 200 miles. The disadvantage of these systems, however, is that they are condemned to territories where the ground at the utmost is gently undulating, and where there are roads on which four-wheeled vehicles can travel.

For operation in hilly districts, where only trails are to be found, the Marconi Company, has perfected what may be described as "pack" and "knapsack" installations respectively. In the first named the whole of the installation is mounted upon the backs of four horses. The first carries the generator set, the second the transmitting instruments, the third the receiving equipment, and the fourth the detachable mast and stays.

The generator is carried upon the horse's saddle, and is fitted with a pair of legs on each side. On one side of the saddle is mounted a small highspeed explosion motor, while on the opposite side, in axial alignment with the motor, is a small dynamo. When it is desired to erect the installation the saddle carrying this set is removed from the horse's back and placed upon the ground, the legs acting as the support. A length of shaft is then slipped into sockets at the inner ends of the motor and dynamo shafts respectively, thus coupling them directly, while the current is transmitted through a short length of flexible cable to the instruments. The mast itself is made in lengths of about four feet, which are slipped together in the manner of the sections of a fishing rod, and erected, being supported by means of wire guys. In this manner an antenna from 40 to 50 feet in height may be obtained.

The feature of this set is its compactness, the equal division of the sections of the installation, and the celerity with which the station may be set up and dismantled in extremely mountainous country such as the Vosges, where it is even difficult for a pack-horse to climb to commanding or suitable positions, there is still another set which has been perfected by the Marconi Company. This is the "knapsack" set, in which the whole of the installation, necessarily light, small, and compact, is divided among four men, and carried in the manner of knapsacks upon their backs. Although necessarily of limited radius, such an installation is adequate for communication within the restricted range of air-craft.

Greater difficulties have to be overcome in the mounting of a wireless installation upon a dirigible. When the Zeppelin was finally accepted by the German Government, the military authorities emphasised the great part which wireless telegraphy was destined to play in connection with such craft. But have these anticipations been fulfilled? By no means, as a little reflection will suffice to prove.

In the first place, a wireless outfit is about the most dangerous piece of equipment which could be carried by such a craft as the Zeppelin unless it is exceptionally well protected. As is well known the rigidity of this type of airship is dependent upon a large and complicated network of aluminium, which constitutes the frame. Such a huge mass of metal constitutes an excellent collector of electricity from the atmosphere; it becomes charged to the maximum with electricity.

In this manner a formidable contributory source of danger to the airship is formed. In fact, this was the reason why "Z-IV" vanished suddenly in smoke and flame upon falling foul of the branches of trees during its descent. At the time the Zeppelin was a highly charged electrical machine or battery as it were, insulated by the surrounding air. Directly the airship touched the trees a short circuit was established, and the resultant spark sufficed to fire the gas, which is continuously exuding from the gas bags.

After this accident minute calculations were made and it was ascertained that a potential difference of no less than 100,00 volts existed between the framework of the dirigible and the trees. This tension sufficed to produce a spark 4 inches in length. It is not surprising that the establishment of the electric equilibrium by contact with the trees, which produced such a spark should fire the hydrogen inflation charge. In fact the heat generated was so intense that the aluminium metallic framework was fused. The measurements which were made proved that the gas was consumed within 15 seconds and the envelope destroyed within 20 seconds.

As a result of this disaster endeavours were made to persuade Count Zeppelin to abandon the use of aluminium for the framework of his balloon but they were fruitless, a result no doubt due to the fact that the inventor of the airship of this name has but a superficial knowledge of the various sciences which bear upon aeronautics, and fully illustrates the truth of the old adage that "a little learning is a dangerous thing." Count Zeppelin continues to work upon his original lines, but the danger of his system of construction was not lost upon another German investigator, Professor Schiitte, who forthwith embarked upon the construction of another rigid system, similar to that of Zeppelin, at Lanz. In this vessel aluminium was completely abandoned in favour of a framework of ash and poplar.

The fact that the aluminium constituted a dangerous collector of electricity rendered the installation of wireless upon the Zeppelin not only perilous but difficult. Very serious disturbances of an electrical nature were set up, with the result that wireless communication between the travelling dirigible and the ground below was rendered extremely uncertain. In fact, it has never yet been possible to communicate over distances exceeding about 150 miles. Apart from this defect, the danger of operating the wireless is obvious, and it is generally believed in technical circles that the majority of the Zeppelin disasters from fire have been directly attributable to this, especially those disasters which have occurred when the vessel has suddenly exploded before coming into contact with terrestrial obstructions.

In the later vessels of this type the wireless installation is housed in a well insulated compartment. This insulation has been carried, to an extreme degree, which indicates that at last the authorities have recognised the serious menace that wireless offers to the safety of the craft, with the result that every protective device to avoid disaster from this cause has been freely adopted.

The fact that it is not possible to maintain cornmunication over a distance exceeding some 20 miles is a severe handicap to the progressive development of wireless telegraphy in this field. It is a totally inadequate radius when the operations of the present war are borne in mind. A round journey of 200, or even more miles is considered a mere jaunt; it is the long distance flight which counts, and which contributes to the value of an airman's observations. The general impression is that the fighting line or zone comprises merely two or three successive stretches of trenches and other defences, representing a belt five miles or so in width, but this is a fallacy. The fighting zone is at least 20 miles in width; that is to say, the occupied territory in which vital movements take place represents a distance of 20 miles from the foremost line of trenches to the extreme rear, and then comes the secondary zone, which may be a further 10 miles or more in depth. Consequently the airman must fly at least 30 miles in a bee-line to cover the transverse belt of the enemy's field of operations. Upon the German and Russian sides this zone is of far greater depth, ranging up to 50 miles or so in width. In these circumstances the difficulties of ethereal communication 'twixt air and earth may be realised under the present limitations of radius from which it is possible to transmit.

But there are reasons still more cogent to explain why wireless telegraphy has not been used upon a more extensive scale during the present campaign. Wireless communication is not secretive. In other words, its messages may be picked up by friend and foe alike with equal facility. True, the messages are sent in code, which may be unintelligible to the enemy. In this event the opponent endeavours to render the communications undecipherable to one and all by what is known as "jambing." That is to say, he sends out an aimless string of signals for the purpose of confusing senders and receivers, and this is continued without cessation and at a rapid rate. The result is that messages become blurred and undecipherable.

But there is another danger attending the use of wireless upon the battlefield. The fact that the stations are of limited range is well known to the opposing forces, and they are equally well aware of the fact that aerial craft cannot communicate over long distances. For instance, A sends his airmen aloft and conversation begins between the clouds and the ground. Presently the receivers of B begin to record faint signals. They fluctuate in intensity, but within a few seconds B gathers that an aeroplane is aloft and communicating with its base. By the aid of the field telephone B gets into touch with his whole string of wireless stations and orders a keen look-out and a listening ear to ascertain whether they have heard the same signals. Some report that the signals are quite distinct and growing louder, while others declare that the signals are growing fainter and intermittent. In this manner B is able to deduce in which direction the aeroplane is flying. Thus if those to the east report that signals are growing stronger, while the stations on the west state that they are diminishing, it is obvious that the aeroplane is flying west to east, and vice versa when the west hears more plainly at the expense of the east. If, however, both should report that signals are growing stronger, then it is obvious that the aircraft is advancing directly towards them.

It was this ability to deduce direction from the sound of the signals which led to the location of the Zeppelin which came down at Lun6ville some months previous to the war, and which threatened to develop into a diplomatic incident of serious importance. The French wireless stations running south-east to north-west were vigilant, and the outer station on the north-west side picked up the Zeppelin's conversation. It maintained a discreet silence, but communicated by telephone to its colleagues behind.

Presently No. 2 station came within range, followed by Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6, and so on in turn. Thus the track of the Zeppelin was dogged silently through the air by its wireless conversation as easily and as positively as if its flight had been followed by the naked eye. The Zeppelin travellers were quite ignorant of this action upon the part of the French and were surprised when they were rounded-up to learn that they had been tracked so ruthlessly. Every message which the wireless of the Zeppelin had transmitted had been received and filed by the French.

Under these circumstances it is doubtful whether wireless telegraphy between aircraft and the forces beneath will be adopted extensively during the present campaign. Of course, should some radical improvement be perfected, whereby communication may be rendered absolutely secretive, while no intimation is conveyed to the enemy that ethereal conversation is in progress, then the whole situation will be changed, and there may be remarkable developments.

Prev | Next | Contents