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Weapons of World War One:
Aircraft  pt2


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While airplanes were used in all the theaters of war, they saw the most use on the Western Front. Air superiority shifted back and forth as new models were introduced. This was most noticeable in Bloody April of 1917 when squadrons fought it out in great numbers during the Battle of Arras. The Allies had been producing large quantities of the Nieuport 11 since 1916, which gave them an edge. This changed by September when Germany regained air superiority with the introduction of the Albatros D II fighter. By the end of the year air superiority turned again in the Allies favor when they introduced the British Sopwith Camel and the French SPAD.

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As more and more models of airplanes were introduced, it became increasingly difficult to differentiate friend from foe. This was not only a problem for pilots but for anti-aircraft gunners on the ground. While all planes carried distinct markings of identification, these could not always be clearly seen at a distance, especially in glare and haze. It was crucial to know whether an approaching plane was friendly or not as soon as possible so that it might be fired upon or cover taken. Visual guides were created that displayed the various outlines of planes so that quicker identifications could be made. Some of these pages were reproduced on postcards to help add to their familiarity.

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After Russia left the war, Germany redeployed all its warplanes stationed on that front to the West so that they could add their weight to the spring offensive of 1918. Allied strength was also bolstered by the entry of the United States into the War, but lacking their own planes they had to rely on what the British and French had to offer them. The SPAD XIII was used by American pilots above all others. The last year of the war saw the most intense use of planes in combat. Allied production had finally outstripped that of Germany, which could no longer make up its losses. Well over 200,000 aircraft were built during the war.

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The great romance that grew around areal warfare helped raise the status of pilots in the public’s eye. Nowhere was this more true than with pilots who shot down many enemy planes to become national heroes as Aces. Their exploits and individual acts of bravery were needed by the public to rally around. They provided hope that the War was going well. Many young Aces found themselves reproduced on postcards in the form of studio portraits as well as scenes where they pose outdoors with their planes.

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As portraits of Aces on postcards became very common, their instant celebrity status drew the attention of satirists. The arrogance of those pilots who had not yet proved their worth was sometimes mocked on comic cards.

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Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Barron, was the most celebrated of German Aces having brought down 80 enemy planes before he was killed in April 1918. While he flew more than one type of plane, it was the Fokker Triplane he had painted a bright red while commanding his elite squadron, Jasta 11, that also became famous alongside him. In June 1917 he was given command of a large tactical unit that was nicknamed The Flying Circus because of its mobility. While considered a hero in Germany, most postcards to be found of him tend to be postwar issues. This poses a question; did the myth of his exploits grow much stronger only after the War, or did his fame caused most contemporary cards of him to be squirreled away by collectors?

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There had been a great romance with flight before the Great War, and the sudden expansion of this technology during the war years only added to the public’s fascination with it. The sudden propulsion of pilots into heroes was an outgrowth of this popularity. It also proved to be a great asset in recruitment efforts for the air service because there were many who preferred the glamorous life of a pilot to that of a traditional foot soldier. The odds of death did not seem to come into play, and was certainly not promoted by recruiters. While postcards display aircraft in a wide variety of situations, those based on propaganda posters stress excitement and adventure over danger.

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Romantic notions did not just grow around pilots; they grew around the mechanical marvel of the planes themselves. The principals of aerodynamics were not well understood among the public at large, and so their designs were often perceived in the abstract. This often gave artists the license to render them in highly stylized manner, much more so than on other forms of military equipment. Some of the most unique artist signed cards from this period depict aircraft, whose connection to warfare only seems incidental.

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The traditional romance surrounding aerial combat has also spilled over into modern day spectacle. In many nations today there are military enthusiasts who restore and fly planes of World War One designs. While most of these are private endeavors, they get together on occasion to create public reenactments of feats by The Flying Circus and other dogfights. These shows along with their aircraft are often captured on modern postcards.




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The planes produced during World War One were relatively slow, unarmored, and often fought close to the ground, which made them very vulnerable to such simple things as rifle fire. Many planes in fact were brought down by infantrymen when their pilots were killed. There are many postcards depicting foot soldiers or cavalry firing at planes with their rifles. The chase is a favorite postcard theme, usually showing cavalry or a motorcar dashing across the countryside in a frenzied effort to catch up with a distant plane.

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Another popular military theme was of downed pilots valiantly resisting attempts to capture them. They are usually shown taking cover behind the wreckage of their aircraft, and firing at an approaching cavalry patrol with a pistol as their only defense. It is drama, resistance, and courage all rolled into a single event. While these action cards certainly attracted customers, one has to wonder how often such incidents actually took place. These planes were slow and small enough to be brought down into fields if damaged, but the many real photo postcards that depict the remains of dead pilots next to the wreckage of their planes is probably a far more accurate rendition of usual circumstances.

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Thousands of airplanes were shot down during the War; most wreckage inaccessible to photographers. There were however many planes that came down well behind the lines due to the very nature of reconnaissance work and bombing raids. While some of these depictions show little more than indecipherable jumbles of twisted metal, those less damaged could be turned into far more interesting compositions. The public seemed to have just as much an interest in depictions of downed planes as they did of functional ones.

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There are many anonymous depictions of downed planes, but one in particular received more attention on postcards than others. This was the wreck of the plane piloted by Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was shot down over France in July 1918. Once the body was identified, postcards were made of the corpse lying next to the wreckage of his plane. The important kill was meant to demonstrate that even such famous figures as a Roosevelt do not stand a chance against Germany. Others also used the incident to infer American desperation in that they were forced to even use the President’s son as a pilot. His death however only whipped up more resolve among the Allies. He was buried on the spot near Chamery; and once this ground passed into Allied hands the grave was marked and it became a highly visited pilgrimage site. Quentin had become on of the most famous casualties of the War, and many postcards were produced of this shrine.

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Even though slow moving planes and their pilots were very vulnerable to ground fire, they were still very difficult targets to hit. Rapid fire machine gun units were eventually employed for anti-aircraft duty to increase these odds. While any machine gun could take aim at a plane, some of these units were specifically assigned to strategic locations that were deemed susceptible to air attack.

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While artist drawn cards tend to clearly display anti-aircraft guns being used against the enemy, there are also many real photo cards of the same subject that must be questioned in regard to their truthfulness. Many of these are clearly posed but others look more real. Even so, enemy planes are almost never seen in these compositions. While photographers were not allowed on the front lines, planes knew no boundaries so it was always a possibility that an action shot could really be captured from a rear position. Very often the easiest way for a photographer to capture weaponry in an action pose was to work at a training camp.

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More powerful guns were also set up to fire at high flying aircraft. These were often nothing more than typical field artillery pieces that were propped up to fire at an extremely high angle. While some of these setups were clearly improvised, efforts were often made to set up specialized platforms for these anti-aircraft guns that often allowed them to swivel. This made it easier for gunners to follow fast moving targets. These strange looking weapons were a popular subject on postcards.

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As the presence of planes over the battlefield grew larger, so grew the need to shoot them down. Specialized rapid fire guns were eventually developed for this task. They were often mounted on the backs of trucks so they could be easily redeployed as needs changed. If lucky the gunners would have a supply of fragmentation shells that would scatter small shards of shrapnel over a wide area to better hit their target. These types of guns were often used against balloons.

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While airplanes were usually just shot at on sight, it was always better when their arrival could be anticipated so that anti-aircraft guns could be manned or a squadron could be sent up to intercept them. Lookouts with optical devices were placed on duty but a good field of vision was not always available, and they were useless at night. To fill this gap many acoustic listening devices were made to pick up the noise from plane engines. These devices varied widely in design but they were all based on the model of the horn, which was used to aid hearing for centuries. The horns shape fostered the accumulation of sound acoustically amplifying it. This not only helped warn of an impending air attack, it increased the ability to determine the direction it was coming from. While the British built the most advanced models, the Germans lagged behind on this technology. Similar devices were also used to triangulate the positions of enemy guns that were far out of sight.




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