At the start of World War One, aircraft were very basic and crude. By the time World War One had ended, aircraft had become far more sophisticated and had differentiated into fighters, bombers and long-range bombers. The development of aircraft was stimulated by the war’s requirements, as was the way aircraft were actually used. At the start of the war in August 1914, British airmen were part of the British Army and commissioned officers had army ranks. By the end of the war in November 1918, the Royal Flying Corps no longer existed and was absorbed into the newly created Royal Air Force. This had its own command structure away from the army and introduced its own ranks.
The first recorded powered flight was in 1903 when the Wright brothers flew their aircraft. The first powered crossing of the English Channel was by Louis Blèriot in 1909. Therefore it could only be expected that in 1914 aircraft remained remarkably crude. In the autumn of 1914 a new recruit to the Royal Flying Corps had a greater chance of being killed during training than during combat. When British aircraft took off from England to fly to bases in France for the first time in the war, navigation was based on map reading while in the air and, if the lack of clouds allowed, looking out for landmarks on the ground to guide the pilots.
Initially aircraft were thought to be of little combat use. One unknown British general commented:
“The airplane is useless for the purposes of war.”
As a result of this attitude they were initially mainly used for reconnaissance; for example, feeding back information for artillery strikes, recording German troops movements etc. If by chance German and Allied airmen came across one another, aerial combat was crude but deadly. Pilots flew in cramped cockpits so the carrying of parachutes was impossible even if it had been allowed. In fact, senior army commanders forbade the carrying of parachutes in case they diluted the fighting spirits of pilots. Unable to carry a parachute and fearing death by fire, the British ace Mick Mannock carried a pistol, which he claimed he would use on himself if his aircraft ever caught fire.
As World War One progressed, the military believed that aircraft had a far greater value than just aerial photography – though this aspect of their use became far more sophisticated as the interpretation of aerial photographs improved. Two entirely different forms of aircraft developed – the fighter and the bomber. By November 1918, there was no comparison between the aircraft that finished the war and the aircraft that had been at the start. In just four years the changes brought on by war were huge.
The British company Avro had produced one of the first aircraft used by the army in 1914 – the 504. In fact, the first British aircraft shot down by the enemy in World War One was an Avro 504 flown by Lieutenant V Waterfall. The first version was not popular but by version K, Avro had produced a reliable aircraft that developed a fine reputation – the Americans bought 52 of the Avro K. The Sopwith Camel also gained a good reputation as a fighter aircraft. However, in terms of reputation, the Fokker Dr. Triplane eclipsed all fighters. Its association with the German ace Manfred von Richthoften certainly helped its cause but its design gave the aircraft excellent manoeuvrability and its rate of climb gave it a major advantage over Allied fighters.
At the start of World War One bomb aiming was crude in the extreme. The pilot – or co-pilot if the aircraft carried two people – simply dropped a small bomb over the side of the aircraft in the general direction of a target. If a bomb dropped anywhere near a target it was through good luck more than anything else. By the end of the war aircraft that could be recognised as long-range bombers had been developed. Much larger than fighters, and far less manoeuvrable, their task was very specific – to carry to a target as many bombs as was feasible and to drop them on said target with a degree of accuracy. The Germans had the Gotha bomber while the British had the Handley Page bomber. While the deliberate targeting of civilians was not a new military tactic, bombers made an aerial attack possible. Also a nation’s means of war production – mainly factories – could also be attacked from the air. Such a consideration would have been impossible in 1914. By 1918, it was a reality.