"DEVELOPMENT OF AIRCRAFT IN WAR"
AN ADDRESS BY PRIG. GEN. C. F. LEE, C.M.G.
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
November 7, 1918
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN,--Today I would like to say something on the development of the airplane during the War. In 1913 and the latter part of 1912, builders of airplanes were perfectly happy if they got their machines off the ground at all. They simply designed and constructed a flying machine and then asked the Government to go and look it over. If the authorities liked the "bus" they could order as many as the small portion of money they had then allotted for the purpose, would buy. However, it is quite useless now for a designer to set out planning a machine which has no definite purpose. There are many various duties in the Flying Corps which cannot all be lumped together under the one word "Plying." Flying itself, today is the easiest part of the pilot's task. The various duties for which machines have to be designed now-a-days for war purposes are artillery observation or spotting, day bombing, night bombing, high flying single seater scouts, middle flying scouts, two seater fighters and lastly, those prepared for the armoured machine. A machine today, which may fly at 150 miles an hour, is absolutely useless if the pilot cannot fight in it. I suppose soon, with peace imminent, the whole design of machines will be altered and one will have nice soft cushions to lean against, and will be able to fly in perfect comfort.
General Lee, at the time of this address, was head of the British Aviation Department in Washington. He is an expert on Aviation and a practical exponent of the art of flying.
But speaking from the point of view of the war, the designer had really a very difficult task. They have at various times, set out to plan a machine with a good speed and climb, hoping that the pilot would be able to pull it through a show with his good flying. Those days are gone, and there have been many machines produced lately which can go two and a half miles a minute and climbs, say 10,000 feet in six and one half or seven minutes, which are to be scrapped, because they have not got as large a factor of safety as is considered necessary, or that pilots may reasonably expect. That is to say, they have too many blind spots, or cannot be stunted the way they must be, under active service conditions. There is one instance of this, the Bristol Monoplane which came out about two years ago and was away ahead of anything up to that time. It had a climb of 10,000 feet in seven and one half minutes, and a speed of 121 miles per hour, at 7,000 feet. As I say, this was produced about two years ago but had to be turned down because one could not see out of it. It was a magnificent machine. I never flew it "on circus" but my experience on it in England, proved to me, it was perfectly wonderful to fly; you could do anything with it, and other pilots who flew it in France also said it was a marvel. However, directly you started turning, you were lost and could not find anything at all. You had to put your wings up on end in a vertical bank to see the ground underneath so.you might learn your position. That was only one instance of a very fine machine being turned down because it was not fit for anything in the fighting line. From that, you can judge that the designer and builder had a mighty stiff job to put out a machine which combined speed, climb and fighting qualities.
People talk a lot about engines and machines, lumping them all together. Even in the bombing busses, there are great differences. You have a day bomber and a night bomber. The former is now constructed with a Rolls Royce engine and is designed for speed rather than weight lifting. It depends for defense on its speed and formation flying. That is, they go in a bunch in formation of anything from six to twelve, eighteen or even twenty-four machines. Often the machines use a "V" type formation. With day bombers it is speed and formation which bring them back. To be sure they do carry a certain amount of weight, but nothing like the huge loads of the night bombers. These are an entirely different proposition and the designer has to plan a machine which will carry anything from 2,000 to 4,000 pounds, in the air. The speed with such loads is necessarily slow, as they must be carried at night. To fly with such a burden in daylight is simply to court disaster. Pilots of night machines have to take advantage of instruments which record elevation and momentum and they have to understand air speed and such little tricks of the trade. These are the chaps who do most of the raiding into Germany and usually there are about 20 raids a week on German towns. The farther they go, the easier the jobs will become.
There are various accessories for all the various types of machines which necessitate extremely difficult and strenuous training. Look for instance at the matter of gunnery. In 1914 and in fact for the first part of 1915, there was no such thing as gunnery in the air. Pilots and observers had various ideas of their own about fighting. Some used to take up a pistol or revolver, a Winchester repeater or a sawn off shot gun, funny as that may seem at this date. It has been conclusively proven now that the vast majority of pilots who were brought down, fell, more for want of petrol than because of bullets. In those days, they would try to outmanoeuvre each other. If the Hun got out-manoeuvred and out of petrol on our side, he was claimed by our pilot and vice versa. It was not really until the advent of the Lewis gun that aerial gunnery began to go forward at all. The Lewis was then placed on the side of the fuselage, pointing forward or up over the top plane. As soon as this development came into use, air casualties began to mount up considerably. The Germans had for a time, great success with the Fokker, but really there was nothing to this machine as a machine. However it did have a synchronized gear which allowed the gun to fire through the intervals of the propellor, while the propellor or wind screw was revolving. This one thing alone gave the Fokker pilot an astonishing advantage over machines which had no such attachment. It was new. No one had ever seen it before and all our clever inventors, before the war and up to that time, had maintained that such a thing was impossible. Well it was left to the unspeakable Boche to produce the synchronized gear, and he had great luck with it until De Haviland designed and produced the "D. H. 2," a little "pusher" scout. This did away with the necessity of firing through the propeller, because the gun was in front and the propellor behind. Finally, the Fokker became known as "The De Haviland's joy," so much had De Haviland produced a machine that could turn right away from the Fokker and was not worried by a synchronized gear.
As soon as one or two Fokkers were put out, the French and ourselves got onto the idea and produced synchronized gears, which are of course now on every machine at the front. At present you have two guns in front and two behind on nearly every two seater machine. Each gun fires at the rate of about 600 shots per minute, from which you may judge the havoc that can be wrought when all the guns are pumping bullets into a body of troops on any road. Scores of machines are doing just this job every day. They prevent the enemy from bringing up supplies of ammunition or food. They prevent the bringing of reinforcements and help to demoralize any retreat. There is nothing quite so terrifying to the infantry as a machine with all its guns pumping death into the ranks.
Speaking again of bombing, the Italians in 1912 began to take a serious interest in dropping explosives from the air. To them must be given the honor of beginning the development of this branch of aerial warfare. They began by dropping or throwing out hand grenades and small bombs weighing possibly two pounds a piece. Some of these must have exploded and doubtless caused damage, but still they had the idea and they were the first to start it in actual warfare. When the war began, the most the pilots could carry, if their machines were flying decently, was an observer and possibly one 20 pound bomb. Now however, the capacity has reached as high as 4,500 pounds. It may be interesting to note that bombs are divided into three classes. Firstly, you have heavy case bombs which are designed to destroy and kill by the flying fragments of their case. Secondly, light case bombs, designed to hold the maximum of explosive, and used to demolish buildings, where they destroy by hurtling the machinery, etc., in all directions. All these light case bombs are required to do is to hold the explosive together long enough to plant it in the right spot. Next and last, the most insignificant in a way, are the incendiary bombs. The Boche was the first to start these. He had a very good game of it when his Zepplins were coming over London and Paris. Then the "Zepp" was well nigh unassailable, and the Hun was quite content to float in the breeze over London and drop an "egg" every ten or fifteen seconds. From captured documents, it is quite correct to state that the Germans made no attempt to destroy railway stations, ammunition factories or any other war industry. Their pilots were simply told to get on the up side of London and drift down with the wind dropping bombs at regular intervals on whatever they might happen to hit. They didn't care two hoots whether it was an orphanage or Westminster.
This indiscriminate bombing is not the policy of our Air Force and our pilots have very definite orders as to where to drop their bombs. It is a strict rule that if the objective is not reached, and there was no innocent body of Boches on the road, pilots have to return to their aerodrome with all their bombs. Promiscuous bombing, as the Hun did it, is absolutely prohibited.
As soon as the Germans saw that the Zepplins were in the discard, to all intents and purposes they at once advocated, through neutral powers, that there should be no bombing more than thirty miles behind the lines. They seriously tried to bring this into effect, not from any humane point of view of Kultur, but because they were getting more than they bargained for. I am afraid we made it rather uncomfortable for the Germans working around railway stations and such as were our objectives.
All the bombing overseas now is done by an Independent Air Force which carries out enormous raids and drops tons upon tons of explosives every day into Germany. Unless peace has been declared they will continue in this work until that event, you can rest assured. The effect of these huge raids has been amazing and has really surpassed the most optimistic hopes of any flying officer. The Independent Air Force has been able to prevent ammunition from reaching the front. Air craft depots and factories have been destroyed, thus keeping down the German production away below the demands made upon it by normal war wastage. Trains bringing up reinforcements have been smashed up, and the Boches which survived the bombs were often finished off by the machine guns carried by our machines. There have been dozens of cases where pilots have gone down as low as 100 feet above these troop trains so that they could be sure of getting the effect they wanted. Just the other day the front train of two which were being rushed up with reinforcements to stop our advance had one carriage entirely demolished by a bomb. The inquisitive Boche piled out of both trains to see the damage. Our airmen were flying very low, and to spare you the details, I will just say, they found their machine guns especially useful.
Before the war, photography for war purposes, was absolutely unknown, but three months ago, there were half a million prints a month being shipped to every branch of the service. None of them, from the Cavalry to the Tanks, could do without the photographic service now. The air mechanic who first successfully took photographs from the air at the front is now the Lieutenant Colonel in charge of all the photography and aerial camera training in England. As a means of detecting camouflage, the pictures taken from the air, are of the highest importance. Pilots go down the line taking a definite set of "overlaps." The result is, that you can see exactly the state of the line at a given time. The pilot will go down over the same piece, say two days later, and may see that certain work has been carried out. Maybe it's a battery emplacement and the wily Hun has endeavored to camouflage it, but they cannot keep on covering up their work forever, and they cannot wipe out the tracks made by the working parties. It is quite true that all the tracks made by men, even, are plainly visible in a photograph taken as high as 8,000 feet. Before the artillery starts a shoot, photographs are taken of the position, which is to be straffed. Later, more plates of the same position are taken, and if it is seen that the desired result has not been attained, the artillery has another go at it next day. Nearly the whole German line opposite the British front, is covered, at least once every day, by the photographer in his machine.
Even from the infantry man's point of view, the photographs are of inestimable value, for he can see exactly what trenches he has to take; he can see if any steps have been made up to the foe's line and where the wire is. When the photographs are taken at an oblique angle, he can see also the exact folds in the ground and his objective. The Battalion O. C. bases his attack on the photos he has received.
The artillery now always relies upon aeroplanes for its shooting, and there is now a machine designed especially for this purpose. It is not especially fast and has not got an especially good climb, in fact there is nothing remarkable about it at all. However, it does carry wireless and guns. It's crew is the pilot who advises the artillery and the observer who works the machine guns and defends the machine from lurking Huns, who have a horrid habit of perching up by a cloud and swooping down on some unsuspecting and inoffensive artillery observation machine. Then if the discovery of the danger is not made very quickly, there is likely to be a vacant place or two at the mess that night.
Back in the olden days of 1914, wireless was considered some sort of black magic, and I remember very well the first transmitter that was taken up in No. 3 squadron, when General Trenchard was in command of the Wing, the only one in the Royal Flying Corps. Everyone looked upon this as witchcraft and no one understood anything about it. Major General Salmon, who was then a Captain and Plight Commander, started the wireless development of the R.F.C. with General Trenchard, and they most certainly have evolved a most wonderfully effective system. Today, right away down the lines, you can always see our artillery machines over the German positions. It surely does make all the difference in the world to accurate shooting, and the accurate location of hits is practically impossible at a large angle. We have the Germans now trained so that they are quite content to spot from their own side of the lines, and at a great angle. Lately, in fact, they have found the air over our positions anything but conducive to long life.
I have talked at some length on all these various branches to show that flying is not the thing it used to be. It is no longer a thing of the clouds, nebulous and undefined, so to speak, but it is now an everyday amusement, pleasure, business or whatever you like to call it. But today is only the beginning of flying as such, which is by far the easiest part of the business after all. You can teach the worst "dud" to fly cross-country or to stunt in a total of 10 to 15 hours instruction. He can then get on a service machine and his real training really commences, and he has to be highly specialized. You cannot transfer a pilot from a bomber to a scout, nor a scout pilot to an artillery machine, any more than you could plant an infantry officer in an artillery unit and expect to get the best out of him. There are various courses for each class to go through and each course fits the pilot for one class of machine alone. They do not know the various little tricks of the other's trade which are so essential in this present war.
There is one special duty called "Contact Patrol, which is usually undertaken by the artillery machines because they know the terrain under them better than any others. They are continuously doing shoots over that part of the world, and if there has been any change in the lay-out of the Hun trenches, they spot it very quickly. The contact patrol is confined to special duties. one of which is, to keep in touch with the infantry, cavalry or tanks during an advance and to keep headquarters advised of their progress toward the objective. This alone is of enormous importance because in an advance nowadays the field telegraph and telephone lines are nearly always cut by the intense bombardments. Hence, the only means of ready communication is by the air. Contact Patrol machines are also. sent out before an attack, to find if the "pill boxes," where the German machine guns are sheltered, have been sufficiently treated to high explosive. These machines fly down the line to see if the wire is cut. This one duty alone is of immense value, as many lives have been sacrificed when attacks have been held tip by uncut wires. These machines though, by Eying about 100 feet above the ground can see if the artillery is doing its work properly in cutting the wire sufficiently for the infantry to pass through unimpeded. The Contact Patrol then brings back word of the condition of the wire and in one attack, may save thousands of lives.
Here is another instance of what aeroplanes have been used for. Two battalions got right away forward of the line in a recent advance and Headquarters was unable to get any word from them. The aeroplanes were then called in and told to drop to the isolated units, fourteen tons of ammunition and food stuffs. This supply kept the men going until they were relieved some days later. Another job is called road strafflng, which the pilots of these low flying machines say is the greatest sport in the world. One chap told me he had an awfully good hunt one day. He was up looking for something to turn up, when he spied an enormous limousine, which he described as a "gin palace," floating along the road. Down he came after the prey like a hawk after a chicken. The chauffeur saw the little game and bolted to get under some shell torn trees on a little cross road. The trees, at best, were small and in their present conditions, the burly Hun might. as well have tried to hide behind a broom stick. The pilot came down until he ran the Boche out of his refuge. Meanwhile, the other occupant of the car, a portly old porker, a German Staff Officer, was vainly trying to take shelter on the roadside. Our pilot got them both in the end all right and that night, in the mess, he remarked laconically, "It reminded me of nothing so much as a good day of boar hunting."
In conclusion I would like to read a short resume of what I call "The War in the Air."
The air situation on the Western Front is one of unprecedented interest.
To say that there has been intense air fighting, in the ordinary sense of the term, during the past week, would be misleading, for the weather has been abominable, and the number of actual air combats fewer than for many weeks past. But events of the highest moment have been taking place, in which British airmen have played, and are still playing a vital and important part.
Rightly to appreciate the aerial situation it is necessary to realize that the key to much of the success achieved by the Allied armies in Flanders during the past week lies in the singular conformation of the railway system which lay behind the original German front from Lille to the sea. As this line stood on Sunday last, prior to the combined British and Belgian offensive, an exceedingly serviceable network of railways supported the enemy armies in this sector, of which the leading junctions were Lille, Tourni and Courtrai, while lesser junctions such as Roulers, Monin, Thourout, Thielt, Cortemarck, Lichtervelde, and Deynze, served to link up the lateral connections with Bruges and Ghent.
For some time past these railways have been in a highly congested state, and British flying men, taking advantage of this fact, maintained an almost continuous offensive against the more vital junctions, dropping over 40 tons of bombs upon the sidings and transport, breaking up the permanent way at numerous points, setting fire to vast quantities of stores and ammunition, and in other ways adding to the many difficulties of the enemy in this sector.
Thus when, in rapid succession, Roulers, Menin, Courtrai, and finally, Lille and Ostend fell into our hands, the enemy found himself thrown back upon communications, already congested and disorganized, which were being fractured in new places from hour to hour.
To this striking achievement of the Royal Air Force must be added the co-operation of British reconnaissance machines and fighting scouts with the infantry in their rapid advance. In Monday's fighting alone, in addition to destroying 30 enemy machines, and driving down six further machines out of control, British airmen flew continuously over the battlefield, directing the fire of the artillery, reporting new targets, maintaining contact with the front line troops, and in divers other ways contributing to the success of the operations.
Owing to the sodden condition of the Flanders soil, and the immense difficulties of establishing rapid contact by road, British machines repeatedly carried food and ammunition to the foremost troops by air, thus enabling the advance to be continued with the minimum of delay. This invaluable form of co-operation has been a feature of each day's fighting during the week.
An interesting indication of Germany's weakening grip upon Belgium is to be found in the steady withdrawal of her air forces in the vicinity of Bruges and Ghent. This withdrawal has been dictated, partly by the rapid march of events in the southwest, but chiefly as the result of intensive bombing by the Royal Air Force.
To convey an accurate idea of what is now occurring, it should be mentioned that the German aerodromes in Belgium may be divided roughly into two groups. The Coastal group, including the huge aircraft park at Chistelles, and the air stations at Houttave, Uytkerke, and Varsenaare, were mainly concerned with the protection of the naval and military works at Ostend, Zeebrugge and Bruges. The Ghent group, which includes St. Denis Westrem, Maria-Aalter, Oostacker, Gontrode, etc., is the strategic air centre from which the German long-distance bombers operated against London and the Channel Ports.
For some months past, British airmen have made also daily bombing raids upon these important aerodromes, particularly upon those at St. Denis Westrem, Mariakerke, Maria-Aalter, etc., in the Ghent group. The effects of this aggressive policy have been seen, not only in the cessation of the raids upon London, but in the curtailment of the enemy's activity, and in the enforced and continuous movement of his air-forces to positions less exposed to the British attacks.
A glance at the war map today will show that the progress of the British and Belgian forces is now seriously threatening the German hold upon these air bases, and signs are not wanting that preparations are already in progress for further extensive withdrawals of the German air front in Flanders.
Another significant feature of the air situation is the apparently growing inability of the enemy to make good his air losses during the last three months. Paradoxically enough, this fact has revealed itself in the tendency of the enemy to operate in larger formations, and to concentrate his strength upon particular sectors, rather than attempt to dispute our general control in the air.
While the reasons have been obvious enough to flying men in France, a recently captured German Order, signed by General Von Below, has now placed it beyond doubt that the enemy's air resources are becoming increasingly inadequate to the immense demands made upon them.
This order, after laying down a number of minute and vexatious rules for protection against British aircraft, such as the digging of bomb proof shelters, the prompt distribution of ammunition trains, the putting of horses into cellars, the deepening of road-side ditches, etc., concludes with the following significant sentence:-
"The best means of defence against enemy airmen are our scouts, which are being reinforced. Their numbers, however, will never equal the enemy's strength in fighting machines . . . . As a result, troops in quiet sectors will often have the impression that they are not being protected. They must rely on defence from the ground against their most dangerous air opponent, the low-flying machine."
The evident incapacity of the German Air Service to meet the clamant demands of the war upon all sectors of the front is strikingly demonstrated by the achievements of the R.A.F. Independent Force during the week.
Notwithstanding the prevalence of heavy mists throughout the greater part of the week, the R.A.F. Independent Force dropped nearly 20 tons of bombs in the course of 15 destructive raids over German territory. The railways at MetzSablon were attacked seven times; Mezieres Station, three times; Thionville Station, three times; while the blast furnaces at Rombach, and the aerodromes at Frescaty and Morhange also sustained severe attacks from the air. Despite the formidable enemy defences now established at these vital places, the R.A.F. Independent Force did not lose a single machine during the week.