The battle above
Today marks 101 years since the first day of the Battle of the Somme. And, while the bloody hours of July 1st, 1916 have become a by-word for military disaster, the operation above the trenches was an absolute triumph.
Compared to the British Army’s 57,470 casualties and the German Army’s approximately 12,000, the Royal Flying Corps finished the day with just one airman killed, four wounded and nine missing.
RFC commander General Hugh Trenchard had instilled his squadrons with a non-negotiable obligation to support the troops on the ground – through close air support, successful reconnaissance and gun-laying, and the pursuit of air superiority.
In fact the RFC’s mission was so unambiguous that Major Lanoe Hawker, VC, DSO, briefed his No.24 Squadron pilots for the assault with just two words: ‘Attack everything.’
It worked. The RFC destroyed German reinforcements, drove off bomber attacks, guided highly accurate artillery fire, and brought back valuable reports on the ground attack’s progress.
The first VC
On a day that would be filled with heroism and horror, the Somme’s very first Victoria Cross was actually won more than an hour before any troops went over the top.
Two D.H.2s of No.32 Squadron, flown by Major Lionel Rees and Canadian 2nd Lieutenant John Simpson, were patrolling above Festubert at about 6am to watch for German aircraft and troop movements. They had become separated by a couple of miles when Simpson noticed ten German raiders crossing the lines.
He immediately attacked, but the German observer/gunners put up a fierce and accurate defence. Caught in a deadly cross-fire from three different aircraft, Simpson was quickly shot down either dead or severely wounded in his cockpit.
Minutes later, Rees noticed the passing formation. At first he thought they were British bombers returning from an early strike and flew to join up with them. He soon saw black crosses on the wings and fuselage sides though, and changed his approach to an attack.
Despite the ten-to-one odds, Rees had the skill and experience to hold his own. As the first bomber he attacked immediately dove down and turned for home, he moved his sights onto a Roland C.II escort which fell away and landed just behind the German lines.
Straight into the sky
The raid now started to break up, but the leader and two others continued toward their objective. Rees followed and, as he got closer, was shot through the thigh. Undaunted, he carried on pouring fire into the formation until he was just 10 yards from the trailing machine. He saw the gunner of that aircraft fall back and, finger still on the trigger, continue firing straight into the sky.
Unknown to Rees at the time, he had also shot the commander of the raid, who had been flying as the lead bomber’s observer. With this, the lead pilot had enough and wheeled for home, with Rees dogging him until he ran out of ammunition.
Far below, thousands of waiting soldiers had watched the uneven fight from start to finish, and Rees was recommended for the VC. It was gazetted on August 4th, 1916. By then, Rees had begun a six month convalescence for his shattered thigh bone. He would never fly operationally again – but he would be the only member of the RFC to win a VC in the whole Somme campaign.
The new tool of air power
‘Boom’ Trenchard had been working out his aerial strategy for the Somme campaign since before he took command of the RFC in 1915. Even as far back as the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle in March 1915, when he was still commander of the First Wing, he’d started to formulate a structured plan of interdiction, reconnaissance and troop co-operation.
When he was promoted to General in command of the RFC on August 19th, 1915, Trenchard knew exactly how the new tool of air power should contribute to overall victory. His chance to prove it came with the Battle of Loos, which opened on September 25th, 1915.
In the weeks before the battle, RFC aircraft mapped the ground, identified key objectives and, critically, bombed German supply depots, ammunition trains, troop columns and railway infrastructure behind the lines.
Trenchard had also developed a formalised set of instructions for air/artillery co-operation using the clock code and airborne wireless – which proved the key to very accurate and economical artillery fire when shells were in (relatively) short supply.
Unfortunately, the troops were still mown down as they fought their way into close contact with fortified trenches and machine gun emplacements. There were some 60,000 casualties in just three weeks. But the RFC had more than proved its value.
Against this early success, the Germany’s Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Flying Corps) had launched the ‘Fokker Scourge’ with the introduction of the Fokker Eindecker. Its synchronised, forward-firing machine gun, paired with the superior tactics of leading pilots like Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann, proved deadly to the RFC’s slow, stable observation planes.
The effectiveness of the Fokkers was emphasised by Trenchard’s perpetual offensiveness. Virtually every British aircraft lost was shot down over German territory, where Trenchard’s strategy directed them to reconnoitre and raid. German pilots seldom crossed the lines, and they were forbidden to take their Eindeckers over Allied territory in case the precious synchronisation gear should fall into enemy hands.
From ‘Fokker Fodder’ to the future
The RFC’s ‘Fokker Fodder’ wouldn’t find relief until the arrival of new squadrons and more capable aircraft, most notably the Royal Aircraft Factory’s F.E.2b and Airco DH.2, from late January 1916.
But terrible as it was, the Scourge gave Trenchard the final piece of his strategic picture. He realised that without air superiority, he couldn’t hope to achieve any of his other aims.
And this makes the end of 1915 one of the most pivotal moments in the history of air warfare: With the Eindecker, and the Dicta Boelcke, Germany had established the format of the fighter plane and a template for its employment; meanwhile Trenchard had created a blueprint for the future use of air power.
Even though the Fokker Scourge took place over German-held territory, local air superiority had allowed the Imperial High Command to hide its preparations for its Spring campaign against the French forts at Verdun. When the assault was launched with near-total surprise on February 21st, 1916, Trenchard realised what the German Flying Corps had achieved and rushed to help the French Aviation Militaire retain their control of the air.
By studying reports from both French and British pilots, Trenchard was able to measure his theories against the crucible of an actual battle. The strengths, weaknesses, successes and failures exposed on both sides at Verdun would provide the fine-tuning he needed to plan for the Somme.
However he had precious little time. The Battle of the Somme may have opened – and ended for many – on July 1st, 1916, but the Royal Flying Corps began its campaign months earlier.
As the Fliegertruppe focused its energy at Verdun, some 230 kilometres to the southeast, the RFC started to reconnoiter and photograph German defences, batteries and rear-area assets around the Somme.
In point of fact, the RFC had been bombing targets deep behind the Somme trenches since December 1915, when the Fokker Scourge had forced them to find safety in numbers. In a bitter irony for the Germans, this led to the first use of formation bombing – and the new tactic’s effectiveness was immediately apparent. By the middle of March, a typical raid comprised 23 bombers plus eight escorts, and countless strategic targets would be comprehensively bombed in the months before the infantry attack.
As April came to a close the end of March the entire battlefield had been mapped in detail, targets for strategic bombing had been identified, and numerous German artillery batteries had been engaged. At the same, the RFC’s new fighter squadrons were doing their utmost to prevent German machines from crossing the lines and observe the unmistakeable build-up of British men and materiel.
‘Not a nice business’
Trenchard saw supporting the ground troops as the primary role of the Royal Flying Corps, and wrestling air superiority back off his enemy was a vital but secondary adjunct to that mission. So, in another strategy that would be echoed by the US Eighth Air Force a generation later, the solid work of his bombing and reconnaissance aircraft doubled as bait for German fighters, which would then be engaged by the RFCs escorts.
It all came together perfectly. On April 25th, for example, four No. 24 Squadron D.H.2s were attacked by three Eindeckers while escorting a flight of five B.E.2c reconnaissance planes for Fourth Army.
Lieutenant S Cowan was attacked by two of the Fokkers, one of which he outmanoeuvred by flying an upward spiral which placed him just below the second. He continued climbing to get above and behind the Eindecker and then fired a whole drum of ammunition at it. The German pilot wove desperately to shake him before banking vertically, side-slipping into a desperate dive and then racing back away to the east.
Unknown to Cowan, his opponent had been none other than Max Immelmann, who recalled in a letter home:
‘…The petrol tank, the struts on the fuselage, the undercarriage and the propeller were hit. I could only save myself by a nose-dive of 1,000 metres… It was not a nice business.’
Air superiority at last
As these Eindeckers were being driven off, Lt A.B. Adams and 2nd Lt. C.R. Robbins in a No.15 Squadron B.E.2c were able to discover that an entirely new third-line trench system had been built from Ablainzevelle to Flers. As a result of their safe return, the entire system was photographed and mapped.
The Fokker – indeed, the German Flying Corps – was no longer supreme.
Between May 15th and 18th twenty miles of German front, intermediate, second and third line trenches were successfully photographed again. And this was repeated between June 20th and 22nd, through 32 successful photographic flights.
Whatever happened on the ground, the RFC had certainly delivered the accurate and up-to-date maps the army needed.
They’d also achieved air superiority at last. They reached the end of June with a muster of some 185 aircraft of all types, surprisingly few of which were fighters. Facing them were approximately 129 German aircraft, including one single-seat fighter detachment of 19 planes.
The final countdown
In the final days before the attack, British observers guided artillery fire onto the targets they’d identified over the preceding weeks, as well as any German battery that offered counter-fire. There was little interruption from the enemy. One Fokker that that tried to harry observation planes near Courcelette on June 25th was shot to pieces in the air by an escorting D.H.2.
At 15.30 on the 26th the entire artillery bombardment paused so the RFC could photograph the front to record the effectiveness of the shelling and identify remaining targets. The work proceeded without interruption.
After the war General of the German Infantry, Erich Ludendorff, would recall:
’The enemy’s powerful artillery, assisted by excellent aeroplane observation and fed with enormous supplies of ammunition, had kept down our own fire and destroyed our artillery…’
When ‘Z Day’ finally arrived, RFC pilots were in their planes from 0400 to observe the bombardment. Others mounted bombing raids against railway centres behind the front, and the German headquarters at Bapaume.
These raids would continue into the following days as troop trains and artillery batteries were observed and attacked with virtual impunity.
One significant success was a raid flown against St. Quentin in the early afternoon of July 1st, by six B.E.2c’s carrying a pair of 112 pound (50.8 kg) bombs each (and no gunner/observer, to save weight).
German troops captured later in the battle reported how their Division had been given urgent orders to entrain for the front at St. Quentin station, 35 miles to the rear, when the British aircraft suddenly appeared overhead. One – flown by 2nd Lieutenant Lawrence A. Wingfield – bombed an ammunition with little apparent effect.
Desperately needed reinforcements
On the ground, however, the fire he started quickly became an inferno that spread to the troop train at the platform, destroying all the desperately needed reinforcements’ equipment on board.
The waiting soldiers scattered, leaving 180 casualties in the station. The worst hit battalion of the 71st Reserve Regiment was immediately sent south to regroup and re-equip.
A further 200 ammunition wagons standing in nearby sidings couldn’t be moved before the fires spread to them, and 60 of those were also destroyed.
Flying their undefended B.E.2c’s, Wingfield and two of his squadron-mates would be shot down and captured on the 35-mile flight back toward the front (Wingfield would successfully escape in October 1917). The pilot of a fourth B.E.2c was shot down and killed.
Other RFC raids attacked the German headquarters at Bapaume, along with the ongoing raids against numerous railway lines, stations, troop billets, trenches and batteries.
Combat air patrols
Special offensive patrols were mounted in conjunction with these bombing raids, but met little opposition. While various bomber formations encountered Fokkers in their ones and twos, the scouts only encountered one L.V.G. all morning, which they forced down in German territory.
Meanwhile, Trenchard’s new fighter squadrons were mounting what we’d now call combat air patrols over the lines to protect their hard-won air superiority.
Our friend 2nd Lt. Cowan of No. 24 Squadron attacked an enemy aircraft over Peronne during the dawn patrol, but it escaped to the east. During his second patrol of the day he attacked a pair of biplanes that were approaching the lines from Bapaume. He saw the observer of the first aircraft collapse into his cockpit, then fired on the second aircraft from close range and sent it spiralling into cloud, apparently out of control.
Minutes later Cowan attacked a ’twin fuselage biplane’ which retreated east. (This may have been the experimental Fokker K.1 but there’s no record of it ever being tested at the front.)
24 Squadron’s third patrol of the day attacked a trio of enemy planes near Bapaume and forced one to land while the other two fled.
The perennial B.E.2c
For their ‘combat air patrols’ the F.E.2b’s of No. 22 Squadron also carried observers and a pair of 20 pound bombs. They encountered a number of enemy aircraft for the loss of three F.E.2b’s, one landing in the British lines with a damaged engine. And along with successfully defending the battle space, the observers were able to bring back valuable information about German troop concentrations and deployments.
Under this very effective fighter umbrella, the balance of the RFC was able to conduct its observation work unmolested.
Observation aircraft – most of them the perennial B.E.2c – were flying over and behind the front from first light, reporting artillery targets and ranging the guns using airborne wireless and the clock code. The only flaw in the system was the amount of gunfire in the final bombardment, which made accurately identifying any particular salvo almost impossible.
When the ground attack came, other ‘contact patrols’ followed the troops and reported their positions back to British headquarters.
What they couldn’t see from the air, though, was the deep dugouts, cellars and catacombs where the German troops were sheltering from the barrage. In addition, some early morning mist and the dust from countless explosions made following the friendly troops difficult. Some divisions had flares to signal their progress with, but pilots couldn’t see them. In the end they had no choice but to fly low enough, despite the barrage and ground fire, to identify troops by the colour of their uniforms.
Incredibly, by the end of the day only three of these low-flying planes had been shot up beyond repair and none were lost. Another pilot hit a balloon cable but he and his observer escaped from the crash without injury.
With light losses
Despite the simplistic record of a total disaster, attacks in the south, at least, went relatively well. III and XV Corps advanced beyond Mametz while the 22nd Manchesters captured Danzig Trench south of the town. When the 22nd were repelled by a counter-attack, artillery called in by observers was so effective that the 2nd Queens retook the trench in the afternoon with light losses.
Further to the southeast, on the British right flank, No. 9 Squadron observers watched the 30th Division move forward to capture Dublin Trench and Glatz Redoubt by 0830. They also saw 8th Division soldiers take the Pommiers Trench then overrun Pommiers Redoubt soon after.
Line of advance
Lieutenant T.P. Whittaker of No. 9 Squadron, with 2nd Lt. T.E.G. Scaife observing, took up their contact patrol in a B.E.2c at 1000 hours – in time to follow the flashes from mirrors worn on the backs of 30th Division troops, as they left the Glatz Redoubt to attack Montauban.
As they scouted ahead, Scaife spotted a German battery opening fire from Bernafay Wood. The pair immediately attacked with their machine guns, scattering the crews and putting the battery out of action for hours. They then noticed German troops massing to the east of the wood and machine gunned them as well.
Whittaker turned back in time to watch the Manchesters enter Montauban while the 8th Division moved along the ridge west of the town. The airmen flew low alongside the ridge, waving encouragement to the troops.
When their patrol finished shortly after noon, Scaife was able to draw the line of advance on a battle map, giving headquarters and up-to-date picture of XII Corps’ progress.
Horror and frustration
In the north, however, RFC contact patrols could only watch in horror and frustration as German troops came out of their hiding places and began massing against the advancing waves of khaki.
The command of VIII Corps completely lost touch with the 46th (North Midlands) Division once it marched into no-man’s land. From the air, the contact patrol could see Germans come out of their hiding places as the first waves passed, then organise murderous rifle and machine gun fire against the follow-up waves.
None of those men got across no-man’s land and men of the first wave, now cut off, were either killed or captured later in the day.
On their right, the 56th (1st London) Division was seen moving out across no-man’s land under a smoke curtain and assault the first, second then third lines of German trenches. But all the RFC observers could do was report and hope as the developing German barrage cut off any hope of reinforcement, and counter-attacks threw the Londoners back trench by trench through the afternoon.
The key to the whole assault
In the centre of the attack, the redoubts at Thiepval (Thiepval, Schwaben, Stuff) was the key to the whole assault, and it held out against repeated attacks all day despite some deep penetrations by British forces to its north and south.
In the afternoon, Captain C.A.A. Hiatt of No. 4 Squadron was sent out specifically to report on the situation at Thiepval – which he coolly did from less than 600 feet above the defending German forces. HIs report confirmed that the attacks had all failed, and the ground which had been won so expensively around Thiepval and Beaumont-Hamel was abandoned during the night.
It would take three long months to conquer those redoubts.
Over the following days, the men of the RFC kept up their all-day vigils over the battle, observing, spotting, machine-gunning and bombing with no significant interference from enemy aircraft.
All told, some 110 men of the RFC flew 108 hours of patrols between dawn and darkness on that first day of the Somme – and reported just nine air combats. Trenchard’s insightful new strategy, so carefully developed since the Fokker Scourge, had won the air battle.
The ground war was a different story.
Sadly, the RFC was helpless against the deep shelters, tactical skill and sheer tenacity of the German forces.
As the ground assault stalled, Trenchard realised the worst was yet to come: He knew he had to stay on the offensive to retain air superiority, regardless of the cost to his fliers. The alternative would cost the Army far more.
But he also realised his men would now be exposed to an all-out German response – and that’s exactly what happened.
’Happy hunting ground’
German air strength was soon redeployed from the Verdun sector to regain some authority over the Somme, and the Fliegertruppe was reorganised as the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Force). Its bite was a cadre of highly motivated fighter pilots, grouped into exclusive Jagdstaffel (fighter squadrons) and their deadly new Albatros fighters.
By the beginning of September 1916, Oswald Boelcke had assembled his hand-picked troupe of pilots for the new Jagdstaffel 2 (‘Jasta Boelcke’), which included the as-yet unblooded Manfred von Richthofen.
In The Red Battle Flier of 1917, Richthofen would boast:
‘During my whole life I have not found a happier hunting ground than in the course of the Somme Battle. In the morning, as soon as I had got up, the first Englishmen arrived, and the last did not disappear until long after sunset. Boelcke once said that this was the El Dorado of the flying men… It was an exciting period. Every time we went up we had a fight. Frequently we fought really big battles in the air…’
And on September 30th, Field Marshall Douglas Haig wrote to the War Office in London that:
‘Throughout the last three months the Royal Flying Corps in France has maintained such a measure of superiority over the enemy in the air that it has been enabled to render services of incalculable value. The result is that the enemy has made extraordinary efforts to increase the number, and develop the speed and power, of his fighting machines. He has unfortunately succeeded in doing so…’
Days earlier, behind Bapaume, Manfred von Richthofen had made his first kill.
Hold the line
Still, Trenchard and the RFC held the line. By the time the PBI (‘Poor Bloody Infantry’) finished slogging their way forward in November 1916, the Royal Flying Corps had contributed 292 tons of bombs and over 19,000 reconnaissance photos to the offensive. This was achieved for a butcher’s bill of 800 aircraft lost and 252 airmen killed.
It was a drop in the ocean compared to the 1.2 million casualties suffered by both sides in the hell below – but it was still a murderous price for men of the RFC, especially compared to those highly successful first days.
Their number included Lanoe Hawker, who had begun the battle with his ‘attack everything’ order. He too fell to the ascendant von Richthofen – the Red Baron’s 11th victim – in the very last week of the campaign.
The enemy’s mastery of the air
Ironically, the fullest recognition of Trenchard’s early triumph came from the man most troubled by it – commander of the German 2nd Army on the Somme, Prussian General Fritz von Below, whose battle report stated:
‘The beginning and the first weeks of the Somme battle were marked by a complete inferiority of our own airforces. The enemy’s aeroplanes enjoyed complete freedom in carrying out distant reconnaissances. With the aid of aeroplane observation, the hostile artillery neutralised our guns and was able to range with the most extreme accuracy on the trenches occupied by our infantry the required data for this were provided by undisturbed trench reconnaissance and photography.
‘By means of bombing and machine-gun attacks from a low height against infantry, battery positions and marching columns, the enemy’s aircraft inspired our troops with a feeling of defencelessness against the enemy’s mastery of the air.
‘…Heavy losses in personnel and material were inflicted on our artillery by the enemy’s guns, assisted by excellent air observation, without our being able to have recourse to the same methods. Besides this, both arms were exposed to attacks from the air by the enemy’s battle-planes, the moral effect of which could not be ignored.
Lest we forget
Presented with a brand new weapon, Hugh Trenchard had created an entirely new blueprint for its use. His innovative, insightful thinking may not have been able to win the battle, but it almost certainly stopped the bloodbath from becoming a rout.
Perhaps if the Army’s Generals hadn’t been so completely entrenched in Clausewitz they wouldn’t have pitted Napoleonic tactics against industrial age technology. Perhaps if they’d had Trenchard’s imagination the outcome might have been very different. But they still wouldn’t have saved lives, or honour, or ‘little Belgium’, or democracy, or Britain’s fading hegemony, or whatever else they might have been fighting for…
They just created carnage.
Despite Trenchard’s pioneering success, there were no winners on the Somme. And its memory stays with us for all the wrong reasons.
H.A. Jones: The War In The Air, Vol. II, Oxford 1928
Thomas G. Bradbeer: The British Air Campaign During The Battle Of The Somme, April – November 1916: A Pyrrhic Victory, University of St. Mary 1999.
(Download a full copy of this fascinating paper (11MB PDF].)
Manfred von Richthofen, Der Rote Kampfflieger (The Red Battle Flyer), 1917
Franz Immelmann: Immelmann, The Eagle of Lille, 1935
Click here for more detail on the actions fought along the 29 kilometre Somme battlefront on July 1st, 1916 (a.k.a. The Battle of Albert).