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Weapons of World War One:
Aircraft  pt1


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Many military men have long dreamt of the ability to drop bombs on an enemy from above with impunity, and when balloons were invented, they were promoted as the miracle that would ensure victory in war. While balloons have a long history of use within the military, their vulnerabilities combined with light payload and inaccurate targeting made them far less effective as weapons than initially promised. They did however provide an undisputed benefit in surveilling enemy positions and movements. They came to be appreciated in the Great War after the mobile war settled down into fixed positions and cavalry could no longer maneuver around trench lines to gather information. As the battles of World War One became dominated by indirect artillery fire, the most important role of aircraft would be in observation.

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Manned observation balloons were primarily used by both sides on the Western Front for reconnaissance and directing artillery fire. Since most big guns were kept protected out of sight behind the battlefront, it meant that gunners could not see their targets and their fire had to be directed by observers. Without any mechanisms of propulsion, these balloons were tethered in place by long steel cables that were usually controlled by a truck mounted winch. Although telephone lines were also run down with the tethers for speedy communication, photography played an important role in gathering information. Greater details could be gleaned out of photographs and carefully analyzed on the ground.

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Observation balloons came in a number of designs, the most traditional being spherical shaped that was largely used by the French and Russians. Though in use since the late 18th century, they were no longer lifted with hot air but were all light gas balloons filled with hydrogen by World War One. While it was easy to make a balloon in a spherical shape, it was not ideal for flying as they became unstable in high winds. These balloons had to be tethered to work effectively.

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The tailed fan-like kite balloon was designed to be more stable in flight, and they came in a number of variations. Even when tethered to the ground, movement could interfere with observation. Though the French Caquot was an early design, these types of balloons were most popular with the British and German army. Most postcards that depict these balloons show them close to the ground being handled by their support crews as they are carefully maneuvered into position.

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While a company of men were usually assigned to operate a single balloon, they existed as part of larger units whose organization and size differed from one nation to the next. As an organized unit they were subject to being honored on regimental cards regardless of their unit’s size.

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Though the small basket of a balloon could not hold more than a pilot and a few observers, a much larger ground crew was needed to inflate it, move it into position, and transport it from place to place. While the balloon’s handlers are depicted fairly often on postcards, the auxiliary equipment such as the gas generators that filled the balloons with hydrogen are much more difficult to find.

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Balloons were also used in naval warfare, largely for reconnaissance. The Royal Naval Air Service, which had twelve stations was particularly active in guarding the coast of Great Britain as well as patrolling the English Channel and North Sea. In August 1915 these balloons were officially placed under the control of the Royal Navy. While they became instrumental in spotting German U-boats, they had no real offensive capabilities to attack them. These duties would be extended further out to sea when they were added to convoy escorts. This function was limited as they would not make the entire voyage but head back to their station. Observation balloons also operated from ships where a land base was not immediately available as on the campaign for the Dardanelles.

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Serving in a balloon was a perilous job because their small crews were in a very exposed position and the lack of maneuverability made them prime targets for enemy fire. Even when winches grew speedier, bringing a balloon down was not always fast enough. They were often fired upon by both artillery and airplanes with some pilots specifically targeting these craft. Anti-aircraft guns were often set up around them for defense. There are a number of artist drawn postcards showing balloons with their crews being shot out of the sky in dramatic fashion. Balloons were not so easy to shoot down; their skin did not easily rip, and although they were filled with Hydrogen, it was difficult to ignite. The tactics and incendiary ammunition needed to easily bring down balloons was not developed until 1917. Their vulnerability increased with the growing presence of airplanes over the battlefield; causing observation planes to assume more of their duties.

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Balloons were so vulnerable to attack by airplanes that their were usually standing orders to bail out on first sight of them if parachutes were available. The high failure rate of these primitive parachutes caused many crew members to take their chances in the basket if they were not coming down too rapidly. Only the British used parachutes at first, which were not introduced until 1915. They were not worn but hung over the baskets side. A crew member in peril would have to climb over the side, grab the chute and then let go of the basket; often a difficult task when free falling. Such feats can be found on both printed and real photo cards.

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Part of the reluctance to issue parachutes was attributable to their weight, a crucial component to the maneuverability of an airship. Weighing in at over fifty pounds apiece, they added substantially to airships that that had large crews. The men assigned to Zeppelins were sometimes issued poison instead of a parachute as an out to a painful fiery death if shot down.

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All balloons were most vulnerable to enemy fire when airborne, so when their services were not needed or the weather was too bad for them to be used they were kept grounded. While they would have been safer if deflated, they could not then be deployed quickly if required. They still posed huge targets on the ground, so they were temporarily hidden away in depressions or used trees as screens when available.

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Another type of inflatable craft was the barrage balloon, largely used by Great Britain, France, and Germany. They were deployed over areas thought to be prime targets for air attack. Long steel cables were suspended from their underbellies that could down an airplane in mid-flight should it get tangled up in one. Sometimes their mere presence made it difficult for a plane to maneuver towards its target. They were usually deployed in groups so that long aprons of wire could be stretched from one balloon to the next. These deterrents were even more effective at night when the cables could not be seen. A number of artists seem to have been attracted to barrage balloons as subjects, perhaps because they were often deployed on the home front, but they are a rarity on postcards. This may be due to wartime censorship or perhaps their lack of drama did not attract enough customers. Most postcards depicting barrage balloons seem to have been published after the War.




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The introduction of military aircraft opened up a new front in the War, which naturally raised new fears especially among civilians who had thought they were untouchable. At first officials brushed of these concerns because for the most part planes were not very dangerous outside of a rogue pilot out to do some harm. French postcards in particular poked fun at early German recon missions, brushing off any perceived threat. It was only later after aircraft began to mount machine guns and drop bombs that the tone of postcards quickly changed. No longer were they a harmless fascination; publishers would come to depicted aircraft as purveyors of atrocities.

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At the outbreak of the Great War, airplanes had only existed for eleven years. Few in the military saw much potential in these modern devices and they were only sporadically used for reconnaissance. The benefits of using planes to probe enemy lines only became apparent once the cavalry’s traditional role grew obsolete in the face of trench warfare. By 1917 aircraft on both sides were updating information on enemy positions on a daily basis. They had a great advantage over tethered balloons in that they could fly over enemy territory. The data they collected was not only essential for planning attacks but in directing artillery fire in a modern war since most gun batteries were now placed far out of eyesight from their targets. Reconnaissance would remain the major mission of aircraft for the duration of the war.

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One of the most distinctive planes used in the early service of air reconnaissance was the German Taube (Dove). Designed in 1910 with bird-like wings and tail; it found its way onto many German postcards and those of its enemies as well. Despite its name it was often artistically rendered to be associated with a bird of prey. In this way it played the domineering role of hunter on German cards, while it took on evil associations on cards published by the Allies.

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While some aircraft were able to report observations through radio transmissions, most relied on taking aerial photographs that would later be analyzed on the ground and transformed into operational maps that could be quickly duplicated for dissemination. Many areas of Europe had not been surveyed for decades and there was no reliable printed maps to be had. These images were highly classified but many quickly became outdated and were sold off. This of course was especially true once the war ended, and many of these official photos were turned into real photo postcards. In 1919 the New York publisher, Martinson Tiffany became known for many such cards. These types of images had limited appeal and were not reproduced in high numbers.

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At first pilots just ignored enemy planes they encountered as comrades in flight, but this was soon to change. If the information provided by aerial reconnaissance proved essential, then there was an advantage in preventing ones opponent from carrying out the same types of missions from the air. Though the earliest airplanes were not armed, pilots began shooting it out with each other using small arms and shotguns. While it is very difficult to hit a moving target while also moving with unsecured weapons, scores of postcards were produced depicting the deadly results of close range aerial combat. The drama found in many of these cards is intense, and this made them best sellers. While there is no doubt that the new technology involved in air combat was part of its appeal, these types of cards also presented this vast War on a more relatable scale.

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It soon became obvious that the difficulty in accurately aiming while racing through the air could be solved through the use of a machine gun that fired multiple rounds at a fast pace. An extra seat was then added to plane designs to accommodate machine gunners. They were usually placed in front of the pilot to have a better view out from under the wing, but they sill had a very limited upward range of fire on biplanes and had to be careful not to damage their own craft in the excitement of combat. Front mounted guns that a single pilot could use were also added to planes. They initially fired through reinforced propellers that deflected the bullets but this method had many drawbacks.

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It was not until July of 1915 that Germany developed the first machine gun designed to be gear synchronized with an airplane propeller so it could safely shoot through its rotation without hitting the blades. These guns were front mounted on Fokker biplanes, which became the first true fighter aircraft. They would protect friendly balloons while destroying those of the enemy. Planes were now often engaged in attacking each other to make the air space safe for their own balloons. These new guns proved to be a great advantage in this service and by the end of the year German planes dominated the air. Since this was a new form of warfare, pilots could only learn the best ways to fight through practice, but eventually guidelines were set down. Areal warfare would turn very violent very fast; almost one-third of pilots lost their lives in this conflict.

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The War spurred technological advances in flight at an exceedingly fast pace and aircraft were suddenly able to engage in feats that seemed impossible only a short time earlier. As the capabilities of aircraft grew, their role in the War also expanded. During 1916 both sides began using planes to attack enemy troops on the ground in close support of offensive operations. Anti-aircraft fire was not yet well instituted, and so planes often flew in low delivering accurate fire and bombs.

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Individual planes still met in dogfights throughout the War, but as time went on they were increasingly launched in large squadrons to maximize their effect. The concept of air superiority was born as the ability to control airspace could deny crucial information and infantry support to the enemy. When depictions of air squadrons found their way onto postcards, they were most often rendered in fanciful ways. Their numbers were usually exaggerated for effect.

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This form of deadly aerial combat known as a dogfight was quickly romanticized. This might be due, at least in part, to its novelty. At this time the public was just getting used to the newness of aircraft, and its use in warfare was an even more spectacular innovation. In a War where massive armies faced off against one another and death was most likely delivered anonymously, the dogfight returned combat to a more recognizable form. This was personalized combat between two warriors as if they were knights on an ancient battlefield. Pilots easily fit into the archetype of the warrior, which gave dogfights much resonance. This association has even carried over to modern times despite the fact that today’s jet pilots might only see one another on radar screens.

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While many good airplane designs were produced in Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy, production fell far behind their needs. With fronts so large and planes so few, they rarely played a crucial role on the battlefield. The exception may have been in the Bruslov Offensive in 1916 where the effective use of aircraft kept the Russians well informed of the prime targets they needed to hit. Usually it was the Germans who used aircraft on these fronts to the best advantage. The air war outside of the Western Front is not well represented on postcards despite the impressive role they sometimes played.




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