Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:
William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first ten chapters of this series we chronicled British inventor William Samuel Henson’s development of the world’s first practical airplane; the establishment of his partnership with Cornelius Vanderbilt; the introduction of airplanes to modern Warfare; the role played by air power in the Union’s victory in the American Civil War; the postwar breakup of the Vanderbilt-Henson Alliance; the birth of commercial flight in America; how the Civil War affected military aviation technology and doctrine in the late 1860s and early 1870s; the birth of the famous Merlin engine; Henson’s experiments with trans-Atlantic flight in the final days of his life; the first successful trans-oceanic crossings by air; the wave of bankruptcies that overwhelmed the aviation industry near the end of the 19th century; and the Wright brothers’ creation of the first practical all-metal monoplane. In this chapter we’ll discuss the evolution of the Wright Flyer, recall the introduction of the first aircraft carriers into service with the world’s navies, and chronicle airpower’s final coming of age in the First World War.
Samuel Langley never forgave the Wrights for beating him to the punch on inventing a practical all-metal monoplane; it was a huge blow to his pride that those ‘upstart amateurs’, as he thought of them, should have succeeded where an aerospace professional like himself had failed. Nor was Langley particularly happy with the fact that the Wright brothers were getting the federal research support he felt should have been coming to him all along. Making up his mind to destroy them personally as well as professionally, he began secretly spreading rumors that the Wrights had stolen the Flyer’s blueprints from another aviation designer.
His smear campaign backfired when the brothers produced a series of witnesses and documents confirming the Wright Flyer was in fact their own creation. In the end Langley succeeded only in making himself look like a jealous failure and casting a dark pall over his own reputation; on top of that, he set himself up for a long and bitter court battle with the Wrights as they sued him for libel.
In the meantime, Orville and Wilbur continued to refine the Wright Flyer, looking for ways to increase its speed and range. In the summer of 1905, Wilbur Wright suggested to his brother that if the Flyer’s wings were tilted back by just five degrees it might increase the plane’s average speed by as much as 15-20 miles per hour; accordingly modificiations were made to the Flyer prototype to shift the wings to the desired angle. In September of 1905 the Flyer prototype began making test flights in its new configuration. Sure enough, the brothers found their plane had gained an extra 15 mph by virtue of its new tilted wings; a few weeks later they published their findings in Scientific American, sparking worldwide interest in their ideas.
One man who took an especially keen notice of those ideas was a physicist then in the employment of the Austrian civil aviation ministry, Ernst Mach. Mach had made a study of how objects moved through gases, including air, and in the course of this study had developed a system for gauging those objects’ velocity in terms of the speed of sound; he thought that someday this system might be a useful method of measuring aircraft speeds once they passed a certain point, and although the notion of an airplane flying beyond the speed of sound was still years away from being even a theoretical possibility Mach looked forward to meeting with the Wrights to get their take on his theories.
Sure enough, when the Wright brothers visited Dr. Mach at his Vienna office in March of 1906 they spent hours listening to him expound on his hypotheses about how sound and speed were related to each other. When they returned to the United States they added Mach’s premises to their own body of work in aviation research and incorporated it into their development of the Wright Flyer. In the next three decades, the combined results of Mach’s studies and the Wrights’ analysis would go on to play a critical role in making supersonic flight possible.
Though as a warship class they had only existed for about a decade at the time Ernst Mach met with Orville and Wilbur Wright, aircraft carriers had already become an integral part of naval strategy. As had been often the case with past developments in the field of aerospace, it was Britain who led the way. In the early 1890s the Royal Navy converted three old troop transports into seaplane tenders; by 1897 the first purpose-built carrier, the HMS Adamant, had been commissioned at the Home Fleet base in Portsmouth and was conducting shakedown cruises off the coast of southern England.
Compared to the nuclear-powered juggernauts which constitute today’s carrier fleets, Adamant was a modest craft in terms of both size and capabilities. But just the same, it represented a major leap forward in both naval warfare and aviation technology; it was the fulfillment of David Farragut’s old dream of creating a floating airfield. And appropriately enough, when the United States christened its own first aircraft carrier in 1901, she was named the USS Farragut.
By the time the Wright Flyer made its historic test run at Kill Devil Hill in 1903, most of the world’s major naval powers either had carrier flotillas or were in the process of creating them. The development of aircraft carriers as a class was pursued with particular relish in Japan; with Russo-Japanese relations steadily deteriorating in the face of territorial disagreements over the border between Russia’s Siberian provinces and Japan’s imperial holdings in Asia, the Imperial Japanese Navy was looking for any edge it could get over Tsar Nicholas II’s fleet-- and the carrier struck them as the perfect means of obtaining that edge.
On February 6th, 1904 three IJN Yamato1-class carriers put to sea as part of a naval task force under the command of Admiral Heihachiro Togo. The task force’s target: the Russian naval base at the Manchurian harbor town of Port Arthur. Tsar Nicholas had neglected to consider the possibility this base might come under air attack, and the Japanese would make him pay a steep price for that negligence. There was absolutely no fighter protection to speak of, and what few anti-aircraft guns had been installed at the base were of, at best, dubious quality; the warships docked at Port Arthur were in effect sitting ducks for the Japanese.
The officers and sailors at the base didn’t even know an air attack was coming until a Japanese bomb went off just three feet from the headquarters of then-Russian Pacific fleet commander-in-chief Admiral Zinovy P. Rozhestvensky. By the time Rozhestvensky and his men finally realized what was happening, Togo’s strike planes had sunk at least five Russian vessels and the battleships in Togo’s squadron were shelling Port Arthur almost at will. To add insult to injury for Rozhestvensky’s beleaguered fleet, two of the base’s anti-aircraft batteries misfired and killed their crews, further debilitating an already feeble defensive system. After that, everything seemed to go to hell in a handbasket for the Russians; what the Japanese battleships didn’t destroy, the strike planes did-- with the exception of three Russian warships lost to "friendly fire" accidents when one of Rozhestvensky’s coastal artillery spotters gave the wrong co-ordinates to his gunners.
Just four hours after Togo’s surprise attack had started, he ordered his task force to retire eastward to the Japanese home islands, satisfied that he had dealt the Russians a major defeat. And he had, one bigger than even he himself knew at that moment: the Port Arthur base lay in ruins and Rozhestvensky’s fleet had been wiped out practically at anchor. Togo didn’t realize the full extent of what he’d accomplished until a week after the Port Arthur strike, when his top naval intelligence aide showed him a report detailing just how thoroughly his squadron had crippled the Russian Pacific fleet.
Admiral Rozhestvensky, on the other hand, knew all too well what the Japanese had done: less than 72 hours after the attack, he was relieved of his command and court-martialed on grounds of incompetence in the line of duty. The Port Arthur strike spelled the end of Rozhestvensky’s naval career; by the end of the month he’d been stripped of his rank and dishonorably discharged from the Imperial Russian Navy. On March 1st, 1904 he committed suicide in St. Petersburg.
The impact of the Port Arthur attack was felt well beyond the immediate battlefront of the Russo-Japanese War; in April of 1904 the military attaché at the British embassy in Tokyo drafted a confidential report to the Admiralty outlining his suggestions for taking the lessons of the Japanese air strikes against the Russian Pacific fleet and applying them to the Royal Navy’s own approach to aircraft carrier operations. Similar memoranda would be issued in short order by the French, German, and Italian naval attachés in Tokyo, while in Washington President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt read a research paper on the subject done by respected naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan. Whatever remaining shred of doubt there might have been about the utility of aircraft carriers as a tool of naval combat now lay at the bottom of Port Arthur’s harbor along with the rusting hulls of the Russian warships sunk by Togo’s squadron.
Even Tsar Nicholas II, who like in most other aspects of his thinking was stiffly conservative on military matters, was at last obliged to concede the necessity of a naval air arm and in May of 1904 hastily ordered the conversion of three old cruisers into first-line carriers. This would prove too little too late, though, since by then the tide of war had turned largely in favor of the Japanese; in any event, only one of the three converted vessels would be ready for active duty before the Russo-Japanese War ended.
As for the other two converted ships, the first, Nevsky, would never leave drydock; plagued by a seemingly endless series of accidents, structural problems, and work stoppages by the laborers assigned to her conversion, she was finally broken up for scrap in 1907. The second ship, Potemkin2, would become the scene of one of the most famous mutinies of all time: during a shakedown cruise in June of 1905, a flight deck petty crewman named M.V Matyushenko led his fellow sailors and the ship’s pilot complement in a revolt against her officers after his bunkmate was shot for objecting to spoiled meat in the borscht served by the ship’s mess. The revolt was crushed ten days later by a Black Sea flotilla loyal to Tsar Nicholas, but it would prove to have far-reaching effects on the course of Russian history-- twelve years after the mutiny, when Lenin’s Bolsheviks had overthrown the Russian government and instituted a Communist regime, Lenin would hail Matyushenko and his fellow mutineers as martyrs to the sacred cause of revolution. Potemkin was retired from active service and converted into a floating museum in 1923, only to be pressed back into duty eighteen years later when the Soviet Union found itself at war with Nazi Germany.
By 1910 Europe’s two biggest military powers, Britain and Germany, were locked in a fierce competition for supremacy in the air; the old Her Majesty’s Royal Flying Corps, now renamed the Royal Air Force, and the German Luftstreitkräfte were rushing to outdo each other in building faster fighters, more destructive more destructive bombers, bigger transport planes. A similar aerial arms race was underway between the respective carrier arms of the Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy. Tensions between Berlin and London had been steadily increasing since Kaiser Wilhelm II’s accession to the Imperial throne, and if war broke out between the two great kingdoms-- a possibility that with each passing year was slowly morphing into an inevitability --neither the British nor the Germans wanted to be caught off guard in the air.
Nor was the United States idle in this regard: before leaving office, President Theodore Roosevelt had started a comprehensive program to expand the US Aerial Corps and the carrier aviation branch of the US Navy, and his successor Woodrow Wilson continued this expansion. By the end of Wilson’s first year in the White House, there were nine Farragut-class aircraft carriers and four Dewey3-class carriers in active service with the US Navy and two additional ships of each class were under construction; during that same year the US Aerial Corps commissioned two new bomber groups and four new fighter squadrons. During Wilson’s second year in office, US Aerial Corps chief of staff General William "Billy" Mitchell ordered a thorough overhaul of the Corps’ scout and reconnaissance plane inventory; he wanted to be sure that the USAC’s battlefield recon capabilities kept pace with the times, and on top of that he deemed it a high priority that his bomber groups should have accurate intelligence on potential targets in the event of a future war.
Mitchell was highly prescient on this score: on July 28th, 1914, just minutes after their private plane landed in the Bosnian provincial capital Sarajevo, Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by Serbian nationalists, sparking the First World War-- a conflict in which the United States would become involved during Wilson’s fourth year as president.
When Great Britain entered the war in early August of 1914, RAF Bomber Corps commander-in-chief General Sir Hugh Trenchard deployed six bomber groups to France to support Allied offensives against the Germans on the Western Front. With the Kaiser’s army already having overrun Belgium and making an aggressive push to capture Paris, Trenchard saw it as a matter of life and death to ensure the Allies had as much air support as they could get when they started their counteroffensive.
He was also hoping to mount a pre-emptive strike against Luftkreis bomber bases in occupied Belgium; British intelligence agents had learned that the Germans intended to use these bases to attack military and industrial targets in southern England, and General Trenchard wanted to yank that sword out of Kaiser Wilhelm’s hand before Wilhelm had the opportunity to make full use of it. Trenchard’s fellow bomber commander, Giliuo Douhet of the Italian Forza Aeronautica4, had told him that the Luftkreis had required its pilots to study Union Army bomber tactics from the American Civil War and now intended to employ those selfsame tactics in an attempt to break England’s will to fight.
RAF Fighter Corps dispatched several of its own groups to the Western Front, some to provide close air support for Allied ground troops and others to intercept German bombers before they penetrated too deep into Allied territory. One such group, the Le Havre-based No. 5, recorded the first confirmed Allied air combat kill of the war on August 8th, 1914 when two of its planes downed a Gotha bomber participating in a Luftkreis attempt to raid the French port of Dieppe. Three days later, the Germans would notch their own first bomber kill when a flight of Fokker D.VIIs wiped out a Handley-Page Cyclone5 sent to strike German munitions dumps in Alsace-Lorraine.
On the Eastern Front, by contrast, the Imperial Russian Air Cavalry would not rack up its first enemy aircraft kill until October 3rd, by which time popular sentiment in Russia was turning overwhelmingly against the war after a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg. Of all the air services involved in World War I, the Imperial Russian Air Cavalry was perhaps the weakest of the bunch; its aircraft were poorly maintained, its tactical and strategic doctrines at least five years behind those of the world’s other major air arms, its training methods were at best dubious, and its officer corps chosen more for obedience to the Tsar than for leadership ability or combat experience. Modern military historians consider it something of a miracle that the Imperial Air Cavalry wasn’t annihilated in the opening days of the war; as it was, one out of every three Russian pilots sent into action between August of 1914 and February of 1915 died on his first mission-- if enemy action didn’t kill him, his own mistakes would. And even if the pilot was fortunate enough to return from his assignment in one piece, it didn’t guarantee he would live to see the next morning: officers in the Tsar’s air force, like their peers in the army and navy, tended to favor a harsh approach to discipline and it was common for Imperial Air Cavalry aviators to be shot for the slightest infraction.
Many of the most famous-- and infamous --leaders of the 20th century were linked in one fashion or another to the air war in Europe during World War I. Future Italian Fascist overlord Benito Mussolini was a gunnery sergeant with an anti-aircraft regiment on the Austrian front; Adolf Hitler, creator of the brutal Nazi tyranny that would rule Germany from the early 1930s until the end of World War II, was a Luftstreitkräfte dispatch rider in Belgium until a chlorine gas attack hospitalized him in 1918. Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s future successor as ruler of the USSR, belonged to a secret Communist propaganda team that encouraged Imperial Russian Air Cavalry noncoms to desert their posts. A young French air force lieutenant named Charles de Gaulle served as head of an air defense intelligence platoon between 1915 and 1917.
Three future American presidents played a part in the air campaign in various capacities: Franklin Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, supervised the appropriation of funds for the US Atlantic fleet’s carrier force; Dwight Eisenhower, Class of 1916 graduate of the United States Aerial Corps Academy6, was a fighter tactics instructor for about a year before joining the air contingent of the American Expeditionary Force(AEF); and Captain Harry S. Truman served as executive officer with a USAC bomber group in France during the final year of the war.
But perhaps no future leader on either the Allied or the German side during the First World War had greater influence on the course of the air phase of that conflict than British Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. In the spring of 1915, in hopes of knocking Germany’s Asian ally Turkey out of the war as well as gaining a foothold for the Allies in the Dardanelles Straits, he devised a risky plan to eliminate Turkish army garrisons on the Gallipoli Peninsula by attacking the peninsula with a combined force of battleships and aircraft carriers; Churchill’s hope was the carrier planes, whose raids would be preceded by low-level bombing runs from RAF planes based on Greece’s Salonika peninsula and the island of Crete, would neutralize the Turkish forts and allow Allied ground troops to establish a beachhead at Gallipoli with little or no opposition.
At first things seemed to be going well: the RAF bombers took out most of the Turkish guns while Royal Navy torpedo planes from HMS Adamant and her sister ship HMS Absolute sank several Turkish navy minelayers and fighter planes from those carriers shot down scores of Turkish attack aircraft as they tried to hit the Royal Navy task force in the Dardanelles. Two hours into the British assault, however, disaster struck: a German submarine which had managed to penetrate the task force’s defensive screens fired two torpedoes at Adamant and got a direct hit on her main engines, setting off an explosion that ruptured her flight deck and caused her to list severely to port. Within minutes, Adamant’s captain was forced to give the order to abandon ship and her crew watched in dismay as the venerable carrier sank beneath the waves.
With British naval air strength in the Gallipoli battle zone cut in half in one fell swoop, the Turkish air force was able to regroup and mount a counterattack on the British task force. The surviving RN ships soon retreated to the relative safety of the the Aegean Sea; the Allied troops on the Gallipoli beachhead were withdrawn after sustaining heavy losses.
The controversy surrounding the Gallipoli fiasco not only obliged Churchill to resign as Lord of the Admiralty, it almost ended his political career altogether. He had underestimated the number of aircraft carriers that would be needed to successfully pull off the Gallipoli attack, and that miscalculation combined with the sinking of HMS Adamant turned many of his peers in the British government against him. It would take nearly a quarter- century for his reputation to heal from the wounds inflicted on it by Gallipoli.
But the Turks didn’t emerge unscathed either: their navy had seen its minelaying contingent cut in half and a number of critical flaws in their air force had been exposed. The most significant such flaw was the Turkish air force’s approach to training pilots; as was the case with the Imperial Russian Air Cavalry, there was too much emphasis on obedience to the rulers and not enough on making sure pilots were competent in the basics of military aviation.
Another major defect was the insistence of most Turkish squadron commanders on keeping their planes bunched together in a very tight formation while on operations; such formations made a tempting target for enemy fighter groups and AA gunners, and inevitably they incurred massive casualties in combat. By way of contrast, RAF squadron leaders purposely kept their own combat formations as loose as possible to make it harder for opponents to defend against them.
Finally, Turkish aircraft maintenance at least in the early years of the First World War tended to be rather shoddy; in fact, between August of 1914 and October of 1915 the Turkish air force had the highest breakdown rate of any military service in Europe. One out of every four Turkish fighter planes in those days and one out of every six bombers had to be grounded for an extended time because of mechanical problems. This is not a situation that an air force can afford to tolerate very long if it hopes to be combat-effective, and accordingly the German military attaché in Ankara cabled Berlin several times to ask the Luftstreitkräfte to take over the upkeep of the Turkish air force’s combat inventory. Nothing came of those telegrams, however; the Luftstreitkräfte had its hands full simply trying to keep its own aircraft up to snuff, much less the Turks’.
In May of 1916 the Royal Navy carrier service got a sorely needed opportunity to redeem itself from the ignominy of the Gallipoli misadventure. That month, RN intelligence learned the German Hochseeflotte(High Seas Fleet) was massing near Denmark’s Jutland Straits for an attempt to break the Allied blockade of the German coast. A carrier flotilla led by the Adamant-class ship HMS Active was deployed to intercept the German armada when it tried to hit the blockade line; Active’s battle group would be backed up by a screening force of cruisers and battleships that included the HMS Dreadnought, then the world’s largest warship.
The Germans had a fairly substantial carrier group of their own, headed by the Nuremberg7-class vessel Frederick The Great; named after the famous 18th century Prussian king and military genius, Frederick was widely regarded on both sides as the best front-line carrier in the Imperial German Navy. On May 31st, 1916 a trio of Frederick’s scout planes spotted HMS Active and were in turn spotted by a combat air patrol of Active’s fighters, thus setting the stage for the first carrier-vs.-carrier battle in the history of naval warfare.
Each side quickly scrambled its fighters and deployed its attack planes to strike at the other’s warships, but it would be the Germans who drew first blood. A party of Royal Navy torpedo planes sent to hit Frederick’s sister ship Arminius8 was ambushed by Imperial German Navy fighters just as they were beginning their attack run; all but one of the British torpedo aircraft were lost to the German planes, and the lone surviving torpedo plane returned to HMS Active with its fuselage riddled by bullets and its three-man crew seriously wounded. A second party of RN torpedo planes off Active’s sister ship HMS Ardent had better luck in getting through German fighter screens, but they also took sizable losses and most of their torpedoes missed Arminius by a mile.
Thrilling as the Germans might have found their initial successes in stopping British carrier attacks, these would turn out in the end to be Pyrrhic victories; the commander of the German carrier task force, made overconfident by the seeming ease with which his fighters had brushed aside the first RN strike attempts, disregarded his second-in-command’s recommendation to postpone the opening air strikes on the British fleet until his fighters could be landed, refueled, and rearmed to provide air cover for his attack planes. At 12:05 PM, just over 90 minutes after Frederick’s scout planes had sighted HMS Active, he gave the go-ahead for his carriers to launch their torpedo planes and light bombers for the first wave of air attacks on the British task force.
It was a decision he would live (albeit not very long) to regret: fighters from Active, Ardent, and their sister ship HMS Amazing pounced on the German strike force as it was lining up for its first attack run. The result was a grave defeat for the Imperial German Navy’s bomber and torpedo plane contingent as most of the first wave was shot out of the sky by the British air defense patrols.
Despite suffering huge casualties and only being able to inflict mild damage on the Arminius, Active and Ardent’s torpedo planes had helped the RN task force’s cause in one very important aspect-- they bought time for both ships’ light bombers, escorted by fighters off the HMS Argus, to strike at Arminius from just behind her port stern. At 12:31 PM, as her captain was waiting for his attack planes to return and his fighters were lined up on her flight deck awaiting the signal to resume their patrols, her lookouts sighted the lead aircraft of the British light bomber force bearing down on her and frantically shouted to her anti- aircraft gunners to open fire on the British planes. However, any hopes her captain might have had of repeating his success with thwarting the British torpedo strikes was swiftly and cruelly dashed; for every RN plane shot down by the AA gunners, another plane managed to get through and deliver its lethal cargo-- and this time there very few near misses.
From the bridge of his own vessel, Frederick The Great’s captain watched in shock and horror as British bombs struck home and turned the Arminius into a seething cauldron of flames. A few minutes later word came that one of Frederick’s other sister ships, the Feldmarschall Blücher9, was also under attack and in danger of being sunk; as he was hastily ordering his fighters to be recalled so that they could be rearmed and sent to Blücher’s aid, he heard the CRUMP! of bombs exploding in the vicinity of his own ship. One of those bombs, an armor-piercing type, went off directly below Frederick’s main bridge, causing shrapnel to scatter in all directions and kill her captain along with most of his senior officers.
Arminius sank at 2:23 PM; Feldmarschall Blücher followed suit less than thirty minutes later. At 3:10 the captain of a third Nuremburg-class carrier, the Otto von Bismarck10, ordered his crew to scuttle her rather than risk her becoming, as he later put it, "a museum piece on the Thames River"11. By 3:45 PM Frederick The Great, now little more than an empty burned-out hulk, had joined her sister ships at the bottom of the Jutland Straits; at 4:10 the C-in-C of the Hochseeflotte, realizing that further attempts to break the Allied blockade would be tantamount to suicide now that his air cover was gone, reluctantly ordered the rest of his battle force to retire back to their home ports in Germany.
The Battle of Jutland was the worst German naval defeat of the First World War. In one afternoon the British had broken the back of the Imperial German Navy’s carrier branch and shattered Germany’s best hope of severing the Allied blockade line; if any doubt still existed who had won the carrier arms race between the British and German navies, Jutland silenced it once and for all.12
Though the United States wouldn’t join the Allied powers until late March of 1917, its military pilots were hardly lacking in combat experience: US Navy carrier squadrons played a sizable role in US interventions in Latin America between 1904 and 1915, while the US Aerial Corps sent three bomber squadrons to Mexico in 1916 to support US Army general John J. Pershing’s pursuit of Mexican revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa. When the United States formally declared war on Germany, General Pershing’s first official act following his appointment as commander-in-chief of the AEF was to recruit some of the veterans of these bomber units to accompany him to the Western Front; these men, along with two fighter squadrons raised in April of 1917, would constitute the first building blocks of the AEF’s air service.
The USAC’s first confirmed air combat kill of the war was made on May 5th, 1917 when 1st Lt. Edward V. "Eddie" Rickenbacker shot down a Fokker D.VII during a bomber escort mission over the German lines in France. Rickenbacker, who would finish the war as a captain, eventually became the Allies’ top-scoring fighter ace with 23 confirmed kills of German planes and 4 kills of German dirigibles; he also took part in some two dozen tactical bombing raids on German positions along the Western Front.
For much of the time that the United States was an active combatant in the First World War, the backbone of the US Aerial Corps’ fighter arm was the Wright Tomahawk, a military adaptation of the old Wright Flyer; the popular all-metal aircraft was also extensively used by the Royal Canadian Air Corps, who dubbed it the Caribou. RCAC flier Roy Brown, the second-highest scoring Allied ace of the war, was piloting a Caribou when he shot down German ace Manfred von Richtofen-- the infamous "Red Baron"13 --in April of 1918.
By the fall of 1917 dissatisfaction with the government had hit the boiling point in Russia, expedited by premier Alexander Kerensky’s highly unpopular decision to continue the old Tsarist regime’s war effort on behalf of the Allied powers. All of the Russian armed services were rife with dissension and mutiny, but the starkest example of how deep the discord ran could be found in the ranks of the former Imperial Air Cavalry-- now renamed the Republican Air Cavalry since the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.
Even without the constant agitation of Communist propaganda cells to goad them on, most of the noncoms and junior officers in the Republican Air Cavalry had at that point come to despise the Kerensky administration so much they were quite willing to back anyone who sought to topple it. Some of the Air Cavalry’s senior officers also threw in their lot with the anti-Kerensky forces; these men usually did so either from fear of execution for being on the wrong side, a cynical desire to ingratiate themselves with the Bolsheviks in hopes of gaining positions of power in the new regime, or (in rare cases) genuine sympathy with the frustrations of the lower ranks.
There was even a member of the Air Cavalry’s general staff who had secretly agreed to accept the post of air minister in the Communists’ post-revolutionary regime in return for their help in securing the release of his oldest son, who’d been a prisoner of war in Austria for over a year. The only thing needed now to move the anti-Kerensky faction in the Air Cavalry to active revolt was a sign from Communist Party chief Vladimir Lenin he was ready to begin his insurrection against the Petrograd14 government.
That sign came on the evening of November 6th, 1917 when a Bolshevik courier secretly visited Petrograd’s main air defense facility and gave the base’s highest-ranking noncom a telegram from Lenin’s military commissar Leon Trotsky indicating Communist troops would be entering the city the next day to occupy the air base along with other key strategic points in the city, including the Winter Palace and Petrograd’s central telegraph station.
Bolshevik partisans arrived at the air base on the morning on November 7th to find that its noncoms and junior officers had already seized the initiative and taken over the base, arresting its senior officers to put them on trial for their highly abusive conduct towards those under their command. Impressed by both the noncoms’ revolutionary ardor and the swiftness with which they’d effected their takeover, Lenin made them the first recruits for his new People’s Air Corps; he then enlisted their aid for one of the most crucial parts of the Bolshevik rebellion, the attack on the Winter Palace...
Alexander Kerensky was reading the latest updates about the Russian army’s situation on the Eastern Front when the mutineers from the Petrograd central air defense base started their attacks on the Winter Palace. At first Kerensky thought German Luftkreis bombers had somehow managed to penetrate Russian airspace to raid the city; he realized the truth, however, when a messenger rushed into his office with the news of the uprising at Petrograd’s main air defense post. In hopes of squelching the Bolshevik revolution while it was still in its early stages, he rushed to Petrograd’s central civilian airport and took off in his personal plane for Moscow, where he intended to organize army and Air Cavalry units still loyal to him into an assault force which(he believed) would crush Lenin’s insurgents.
The premier’s actions backfired on him: his departure from the Winter Palace allowed Bolshevik ground troops to seize it almost unopposed and made him a fugitive. He would spend the next eight months running from Communist hit squads before finally leaving Russia for permanent exile in western Europe; his private plane, abandoned near the Finnish border because of mechanical troubles, was later confiscated by the Bolsheviks and made into a museum showpiece in the new Russian capital, Moscow.
In the civil war that shook Russia following the Communist takeover, the People’s Air Corps-- renamed the Red Air Force by Trotsky in March of 1918 --showed itself to be an effective tool in neutralizing the counterrevolutionary White forces fighting to restore the deposed Kerensky government to power. Its pilots were usually better-trained than their White Air Force counterparts and had stronger morale; in dogfights with White fighter groups Red Air Force fighters enjoyed an average combat kill ratio of 3 to 1, while Red attack planes inflicted catastrophic losses on White Army infantry concentrations. Modern historians cite the skill and espirit de corps of the Red Air Force as two of the key factors in the Communists’ final victory in 1921 over their White counterrevolutionary adversaries.
The use of aircraft by both sides in the 1918-21 conflict in Russia reinforced a lesson first taught during the American Civil War: that airpower not only had a significant role to play in external wars, but could also have a part in deciding the outcome of internal conflicts. Military staffs around the world would take that lesson to heart in the coming decades; they would also be influenced in their policies and thinking by the events of the First World War.
In the spring of 1918, in a desperate bid to turn the tide of the First World War back in Germany’s favor, the Luftstreitkräfte introduced what was then the largest aircraft of its kind in the world, the aptly named four-engined Gotha Elefant. The new plane was conceived and built with one purpose in mind: to take the war to the British home front by attacking British cities. Though the Elefant would actually end up inflicting little physical damage on its assigned targets over its short operational lifespan, its very existence would alarm the RAF general staff, who for years had been worrying something like this might come along to pose a threat to Britain’s security.
To Be Continued...
Footnotes1 Yamato refers to the Japanese national spirit; the type name was chosen by IJN designers with the express goal of fostering national pride among the crews who would be serving aboard these carriers. 2 Not to be confused with the battleship of the same name which was sunk in the attack on Port Arthur. 3 Named for Admiral George Dewey, commander of the US naval squadron that won the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War; Dewey had also been heavily involved with the construction of the US Navy’s first seaplane tenders. 4 The World War I-era Italian air force. 5 The principal RAF bomber for most of the First World War.
6Formerly the Aeronautical Warfare Instruction School; the name change was approved by Congress in 1911.
7Germany’s first aircraft carrier, commissioned in 1900 and put into active service the following year.
8Named after the ancient Teutonic chieftain who defeated the Roman Empire in the Battle of the Teutonburg Forest in 9 AD.
9Named for a celebrated 19th-century Prussian general who, ironically, fought on the British side at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
10Named after Kaiser Wilhelm I’s chancellor.
11Quoted from an interview with American author and naval historian Samuel Eliot Morrison for Morrison’s 1962 book Decision at Jutland.
12For a look at how Jutland might have turned out if the C-in-C of Hochseeflotte’s carrier fleet had paid more heed to his second-in-command’s advice, read John H. Gill’s story "Away All Boats: The German Victory At Jutland, 1916" in Jonathan North’s 2007 book The Verdun Options: Alternate Decisions of the First World War from Greenhill.
13So nicknamed because of his Fokker D.VII’s bright red fuselage.
14Russia’s capital city before the 1917 Communist revolution.