The Military Aircraft Used By The Germans On The Western Front In The Great War.
N.B.: In attempting to replicate the simple format of the WFA website article entitled THE MILITARY AIRCRAFT USED BY THE BRITISH EMPIRE ON THE WESTERN FRONT IN THE GREAT WAR' the writer was somewhat thwarted by the large number of German Marques and the plethora of Types, and/or Marks. For example, if we take the Marque Albatros Werke, it produced the following Types and Marks from 1914 to 1918: BI to BII, CI to CXII, DI to DVIII, JI to JII and W4 - in all five Types and 26 Marks. To add to this complexity, the production of many of these aircraft was spread across a maze of interwoven production and operational schedules that ran from 1914 to 1918. Accordingly, in an attempt to meet the principal objective of this article - detailing the flow of operational aircraft onto the Western Front battlefield - the aircraft Types are shown by the date of introduction into active service. And, where known, the date of the introduction of the last of the additional Marks is indicated. Other relevant information - such as optional or different aero-engines - is included as available. However, to the contrary, it should be noted that in the case of aero-engines, the majority used in the German aircraft of the Great War were mainly produced by just two manufacturers - Benz and Mercedes. The power plants produced by the other 6 Marques played a distinctly minor role.
If detailed information is required about a specific Marque, Type or Mark of German or Austrian aircraft, the reader is strongly advised to refer to the more detailed authoritative sources such as those listed in the References.
The German State began its interest in lighter-than-air flight with the construction of the first Zeppelin airship in 1900. In March 1909 the first military Zeppelin airship entered into service with the German Army as the LZ1 (Zeppelin Luftschiff 1).
Accordingly, for some years the attention of the German military was largely diverted away from heavier-than- air flight. (There was no separate German Airforce throughout the Great War. Until October 1916, the German Army Air Service [GAAS] was considered part of the communications set-up of the Army. Thereafter the airforce element in the Army - The German Flying Corps - was established and became effective in 1917).
It was not until 1912, when the German Army learned of French plans for the development of a strong unit of heavier-than-air craft (L'Aèronautique Militaire), that plans were made to provide aircraft for attachment to each army, corps headquarters and fortress for reconnaissance purposes. In all, around 220 German aircraft were available at the outbreak of war in 1914. In addition there were seven military Zeppelins and three seconded civilian craft.
The annual budget for Army aviation in 1914 was 80 million Marks (£400,000) plus a good share of the annual general military budget of 800 million Marks.
Somewhat surprisingly, the technical quality of the early German heavier-than-air aircraft was not as good as the French, or the significantly less numerous British, and, in fact, many German aircraft were direct copies of French models.
Nearly all the remaining German and Austrian aircraft were versions of a centre-wing monoplane first designed by Igo Etrich in 1910. Etrich revoked his patent rights in 1914 to permit unfettered production of his design. This latter group of clones became known as the Taube type, and in the early part of the war all monoplane German military aircraft became known to the Allied troops as 'Taubes'.
All of the new mono- and biplane aircraft ordered in1914/15 - nominally 1,000 - had to comply with strict criteria:
However, once the German aviation industry got into its stride. the range of products was extraordinary. Over 50 aircraft construction companies were registered by the end of the war; although some were principally sub-contractors. Of these 50+ Marques only 18 played a significant role, and only these will be considered in detail here.
In 1914, the German aero-industry produced 1,348 military aircraft.
The roll call of the early German and Austrian aircraft on the Western Front
Though Germany and Austria had rather more aircraft available for service on the Western Front than their French and British counter parts (Germany 220, France 164 and Great Britain 63), the German air-fleet in 1914 was also a rather ad hoc lot.
Many of the aircraft were of the Taube (= The Dove) monoplane type made by several different German manufacturers, or direct copies of French aircraft. These early Taube aircraft can be represented by:
Other marques were:
The expectations that the GAAS had for their rigid airships* (eg. the Zeppelins) on the battlefield of the Western Front proved to be over optimistic.
*N.B.: There were other marques of operational rigid airships although all tended to fall under the generic name Zeppelin. Those supplied to the GAAS were: Zeppelin = 43; Schutte-Lanz = 10; Parseval = 6 and Gross-Basenach = 1. Not all were used operationally on the Western Front.
Despite further investment in, and the development of, these expensive and long production time machines, it soon became clear they were not well suited to a reconnaissance and bombing role over the trenches of the Western Front. The operational drawbacks being: their increased vulnerability to attack from the technically improved aircraft that were arriving on the Western Front; the increasing accuracy of enemy ground fire; and, by no means least, the problems presented by bad weather.
The role of the heavier-than-air German aircraft on the Western Front in 1914 and early 1915 was largely defensive. This German posture was greatly facilitated by the categorical intention of the British Royal Flying Corps, and to a lesser extent the French L'Aéronautique Militaire, to undertake constant offensive action into enemy territory. This strategy was subsequently formalised by the stated position of both the British Commanders, General Sir Douglas Haig, BEF and General Hugh Trenchard, RFC, who concurred that the air offensive should be "relentless and incessant".
Combined with the disadvantage of the prevailing wind from the West, this meant most aerial interaction took place over the German lines and base areas. Accordingly, the fighting generally took place under conditions more advantageous to the GAAS; not least of these advantages was that the German aircraft needed to carry less fuel, and that made them lighter and faster, and more agile in aerial combat.
As the skies became more crowded over the concentrations of the combattant armies locked in their trenches, personal confrontations with the enemy aviators became more frequent. So, both the Germans and the Allies took to taking into the air personal small arms such as a pistol, rifle, or small hand bombs; the latter to drop on enemy aircraft or to deter enemy ground-fire.
Also, like the British, the Germans developed two lighter, air-cooled, machine gun types for air combat - the Spandau and Parabellum - both of 7.92mm calibre and with more compact and robust magazines to better resist the buffeting of the air-stream during flight.
Aircraft first operational in 1915.
In April 1915, came the event that transformed the defensive stance of the German Army Air Service into a formidable fighting machine. This was the discovery that a French L'Aéronautique Militaire pilot, Roland Garros, had modified the propeller of his Morane-Saulnier L monoplane by attaching metal wedges to the blades. These safely deflected the forward fired machine gun bullets that hit the revolving blades allowing the remaining stream of bullets to pass unimpeded to the target. With this device Garros achieved some success.
Immediately, the German commanders asked Anthony Fokker, a renowned Dutch aircraft designer and manufacturer, who was in their employ, to come up with an effective counter-device. Using existing patent designs, Fokker quickly produced an interrupter gear which timed the bullets of a forward firing mounted machine gun to pass unimpeded through the blades of the revolving propeller. Mounted on a new design of aircraft - the Fokker E1 - the combination quickly became a stable and agile gun platform that dominated the air over the battlefield of the Western Front from the Winter of 1915 into the Spring of early 1916. This period was the first of the German scourges to decimate the Allied airforces and became known to the Allies as the 'Fokker Scourge'.
The production of German military aircraft had grown to 4,532 by the end of 1915.
The dominance of the heavier-than-air aircraft in reconnaissance and bombing became more certain when the operational failure of the Zeppelins on the Western Front reached such a pitch that the German Army began to seriously reconsider their role. After several rigid airship losses in 1915 - only six were still operational in January 1916 - came the disaster on the Verdun Front, when the four rigid airships deployed there in February were quickly lost. From the Autumn of 1916, the German Army virtually lost all interest in rigid airships and by June 1917 most of the GAAS Zeppelin airships had been scrapped, with just a small complement of three transferred to the German Navy. However, the German High Command considered the other aspects of the Zeppelin campaign, such as coastal raids and attacks on mainland Britain, to be both effective and morale boosting on the Home Front. These attacks continued right through to the Armistice with 115 Zeppelins being used in these military operations.
Aircraft first operational in 1916
In October 1916, General Ernst von Hoeppner was appointed Kommandierender-General of the air force and undertook a radical reorganisation separating the various types of aircraft into battle units e.g. Jasters for fighters and Kagohls for bombers. Further reorganisation into Fighter and Pursuit units took place in December 1917
The production figure for German military aircraft in 1916 was 8,182.
The second 'calvary' of the RFC occurred mainly in and around the Arras Sector in the Spring of 1917 with 'Bloody April': 151 British aircraft, and 316 aircrew, were lost against a German toll of only 66 and 119 respectively. The balance began to turn in the Allies favour in May 1917 when new, more technically advanced, Allied aircraft reached the Western Front in sufficient numbers.
In June 1917, the first (of four) German so-called 'Flying Circuses' was formed on the Western Front. The Fighter Group (Jagdgeschwader 1) of 48 highly skilled 'Chaser Formation' pilots was formed into four squadrons of 12 single seat fighter aircraft. It was led by the soon to be famous (or infamous) Rittmeister (Cavalry Captain) Manfred von Richthofen. Highly mobile, and under the direct control of GAAS Headquarters, the units quickly moved to crucial hot spots and had an immediate impact on the Allied air forces.
There was also a trend toward the development of special aircraft, some heavily gunned and armoured, for supporting the infantry in the trenches, e.g. Halberstadt CL. But the tide had turned and the German aircraft industry was unable to cope with the Allied production figures and the comparable German losses were increasingly heavy.
None-the-less, in anticipation of the entry of the United States into the war, the reorganisation of the air force continued apace - the America Programme - with both fighter and bomber strength being considerably augmented.
Aircraft first operational in 1917
At the end of 1917, German aircraft production still lagged beyond the monthly projected target of 2,000. The total production of military aircraft for the year 1917 was 19,746.
The Germans were beginning to lose the air munitions war.
Despite the evident superiority of the Allies in the air, General Ludendorff and his mentor Field Marshal Hindenburg decided to launch what we would today call a Blitzkreig. The attack began on March 31st along the east of the former Somme battlefield in Northern France. The GAAS had an important role to play, not least with its new armoured fighters called 'Ground strafers' or 'Contour Fighters'. The die was cast for the definitive battles of the war.
Aircraft first operational in 1918
On 21st March 1918, despite the debilitating effect of the Allied naval and economic blockade, the German High Command still had the power and organisation to launch 3,668 aircraft into the Kaiserschlacht Offensive. Although Allied losses in men and aircraft in the ensuing weeks were considerably greater than those of the Germans, the Allies' reserves of manpower and machines were infinitely superior, with that superiority increasing every day, thanks to the enormous American contribution. By May 1918 the Allied squadrons, were virtually dominant in the air. And by July the progressive collapse of the German Air War Machine was clear to everyone.
From August 1918 the GAAS was forced into a purely defensive role
Production of German military aircraft in 1918 declined considerably. By the Armistice in November, it had only reached 14,123, making a total for the duration of 48,537, representing a huge investment of manpower and resources.
However, at the Armistice, Germany still had, overall, 2,700 operational aircraft against 22,000 British and 15,000 French; another 15,000 American aircraft were in the pipeline.
After a slow start, mainly due to the pre-occupation of the GAAS with lighter-than-air, rigid airships, the Germans quickly learned the value of the heavier-than-air aircraft for reconnaissance and artillery spotting. They also realised that to seize control of the air, by dint of technological advances, gave them a considerable degree of domination of the battlefield itself. Over two extended periods, they did exactly that. Firstly, in late 1915 to April 1916, and again in 1917 when squadrons of new innovative German aircraft wreaked a terrible toll of Allied aviators and aircraft. The month of April 1917 was particularly costly for the Allies, and became known as 'Bloody April'.
The Germans also realised the morale boosting and propaganda value of publicising the successes of their aviators by emulating the French and establishing their own 'Ace' system (five, later 10, confirmed victories). Also there were generous numbers of awards of the highest military decoration - Pour le Mérite or 'Blue Max'. If the five-victory criterion is used for comparative purposes, 364 German pilots achieved the status of 'Ace'.
The operational strength of the GAAS rose from 220 in August 1914 to 3,500 in November 1918, with an overall total of 47,000 aircraft being deployed during the war; a tremendous investment in men and material. About German 3,000 aircraft ( = 6%) were lost in action. In the process, almost equal numbers of their aviators were killed or injured; 6,840 and 7,350 respectively.
Most commentators agree that, after a mediocre start, the GAAS fielded an exceptional quality of military aircraft. Along with the British, they were the prime innovators of technology, strategy and tactics only to run out of both ingenuity and reserves in the end.
Monoplane = Aircraft with one set of wings.
Biplane = Aircraft with two sets of wings, ranged one above the other.
Triplane = Aircraft with three sets of wings, ranged one above the other. Famously used by Manfred von Richthofen in his 'Flying Circus'.
Pusher = Aircraft driven by engine(s) with the propeller(s) behind the engine and usually mounted behind the pilot. Gave uninterrupted forward view for pilot/observer/gunner.
Tractor = Aircraft driven by engine(s) behind the propeller(s) and usually mounted in front of the pilot.
Single seater = Pilot only.
Two seater = Pilot and observer/gunner.
Air crew = Three or more crew members, i.e. pilot, observer(s), gunner(s) and bomb aimer. Some German accounts mention 'passengers'.
hp = Horsepower = traction power of engine
kph = Kilometres per hour = airspeed.
MOA = Maximum operation altitude. Also known as ceiling.
mg = Maschinengewehr = machine gun; mgs = machine guns.
7.92mm = German standard calibre of bullet used in machine guns and rifles.
Spandau mg = Allied misnomer for standard German Maschinengewehr 08 mg that was modified in 1915 for use with synchronised interrupter gear. Produced by the Spandau arsenal, Berlin and clearly franked as such, hence the name.
Parabellum mg = Specially adopted by GAAS for aerial warfare and in use from late 1914. Not suitable for synchronisation with propeller interrupter gear. Usually mounted on a metal ring, or rail, to give a better all-round field of fire.
Synchronised = The use of an interrupter gear to time a forward firing machine gun(s) so that the bullets pass through the revolving propeller without hitting the blades.
Radial engine = The cylinders were arranged like the arms of a star-fish around the central shaft that rotated the propeller.
Rotary engine = The entire engine block, including the cylinders, rotated around a central shaft. The propeller was fixed to the engine block and rotated with it.
In-line and V engines: The cylinders in an in-line engine were aligned in a straight line. In a V engine there were two parallel rows of in-line cylinders that joined at the base to form a V shaped engine block . If not stated other wise in the text, the aero-engines may be assumed to be single in-line row of cylinders and liquid-cooled as opposed to air-cooled. Usually there were six, eight or twelve cylinders in a V engine.
The detailed references available to the non-specialist reader on German aircraft in the Great War are quite limited and, naturally, many are written in German.
In particular the author made wide use of two English language in-print sources:
This book is a montage of the contents of the 1914-1919 editions of Jane's All the World Aircraft. This current volume has 1,000 illustrations (of which 195 concern German aircraft) and has many technical drawings. It gives in detail the then available technical information about most of the German Marques. However, full details are not always given of the full range of operational Types and Marks, and specific minutiae, such as operational height and armaments, are by no means uniformly given. Accordingly, it can be a bit frustrating at times if the details of one specific Type and Mark of aircraft are sought.
An out-of-print Italian reference, in French, was also used by the author. It gives
in considerable detail technical descriptions, and illustrations,of many German aircraft. The original publication is entitled Guida agli aerplani di tutto mondi. 1.Dalle origini alla prima guerra mondiale,by Enzo Angelucci and Paulo Matricardi, published in 1975 by Europa Verlag and Aldo Mondadori Editori. The French edition is Les avions 1./ des origins à la première guerre mondiale published in 1978 by Elsevier Séquoia, Bruxelles, Belgique. ISBN 2 8003 0243 7.
(Edited December 2004)
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