When the bomb strikes the ground the detonator falls down on the charge, fires the latter, and thus brings about the bursting of the bomb. The projectile is of the shrapnel type. It weighs 20 pounds complete, is charged with some four pounds of T.N.T., and carries 340 steel balls, which represent a weight of 5 3/4 pounds.
The firing mechanism is extremely sensitive and the bomb will burst upon impact with the hull of an airship, water, or soft soil. This projectile, when discharged, speedily assumes the vertical position, so that there is every probability that it will strike the ground fairly and squarely, although at the same time such an impact is not imperative, because it will explode even if the angle of incidence be only 5 degrees. It is remarkably steady in its flight, the balancing and the design of the tail frustrating completely any tendency to wobble or to turn turtle while falling.
Other types of missile may be used. For instance, incendiary bombs have been thrown with success in certain instances. These bombs are similar in shape to the shrapnel projectile, but are charged with petrol or some other equally highly inflammable mixture, and fitted with a detonator. When they strike the objective the bursting charge breaks up the shell, releasing the contents, and simultaneously ignites the combustible.
Another shell is the smoke-bomb, which, up to the present, has been used only upon a restricted scale. This missile is charged with a certain quantity of explosive to burst the shell, and a substance which, when ignited, emits copious clouds of dense smoke. The scope of such a shell is somewhat restricted, it is used only for the purpose of obstructing hostile artillery fire. The shells are dropped in front of the artillery position and the clouds of smoke which are emitted naturally inter fere with the operations of the gunners. These bombs have also been used with advantage to denote the position of concealed hostile artillery, although their utility in this connection is somewhat uncertain, owing to the difficulty of dropping the bomb so accurately as to enable the range-finders to pick up the range.
Dropping bombs from aloft appears to be a very simple operation, but as a matter of fact it is an extremely difficult matter to strike the target, especially from a high altitude. So far as the aeroplane is concerned it is somewhat at a disadvantage as compared with the airship, as the latter is able to hover over a position, and, if a spring-gun is employed to impart an initial velocity to the missile, there is a greater probability of the projectile striking the target provided it has been well-aimed. But even then other conditions are likely to arise, such as air-currents, which may swing the missile to one side of the objective. Consequently adequate allowance has to be made for windage, which is a very difficult factor to calculate from aloft.
Bomb-dropping from an aeroplane is even more difficult. If for instance the aeroplane is speeding along at 60 miles an hour, the bomb when released will have a speed in the horizontal plane of 60 miles an hour, because momentarily it is travelling at the speed of the aeroplane. Consequently the shell will describe a curved trajectory, somewhat similar to that shown in Fig. 7.
On the other hand, if the aeroplane is travelling slowly, say at 20 miles an hour, the curve of the trajectory will be flatter, and if a head wind be prevailing it may even be swept backwards somewhat after it has lost its forward momentum, and describe a trajectory similar to that in Fig. 8.
A bomb released from an altitude of 1000 feet seldom, if ever, makes a bee-line for the earth, even if dropped from a stationary airship. Accordingly, the airman has to release the bomb before he reaches the target below. The determination of the critical moment for the release is not easy, inasmuch as the airman has to take into his calculations the speed of his machine, his altitude, and the direction and velocity of the air-currents.
The difficulty of aiming has been demonstrated upon several occasions at aviation meetings and other similar gatherings. Monsieur Michelin, who has done so much for aviation in France, offered a prize of L1,00—$5,000—in 1912 for bomb-dropping from an aeroplane. The target was a rectangular space marked out upon the ground, measuring 170 feet long by 40 feet broad, and the missiles had to be dropped from a height of 2,400 feet. The prize was won by the well-known American airman, Lieutenant Riley E. Scott, formerly of the United States Army. He dropped his bombs in groups of three. The first round fell clear of the target, but eight of the remaining missiles fell within the area.
In the German competition which was held at Gotha in September of the same year the results were somewhat disappointing. Two targets were provided. The one represented a military bivouac occupying a superficies of 330 square feet, and the other a captive balloon resembling a Zeppelin. The prizes offered were L500, L200, and L80—$2,500, $1,000 and $400—respectively, and were awarded to those who made the greatest number of hits. The conditions were by no means so onerous as those imposed in the Michelin contest, inasmuch as the altitude limit was set at 660 feet, while no machine was to descend within 165 feet. The first competitor completely failed to hit the balloon. The second competitor flying at 800 feet landed seven bombs within the square, but only one other competitor succeeded in placing one bomb within the space.
Bomb-dropping under the above conditions, however, is vastly dissimilar from such work under the grim realities of war. The airman has to act quickly, take his enemy by surprise, avail himself of any protective covering which may exist, and incur great risks. The opposing forces are overwhelmingly against him. The modern rifle, if fired vertically into the air, will hurl the bullet to a height of about 5,000 feet, while the weapons which have been designed to combat aircraft have a range of 10,000 feet or more.
At the latter altitude aggressive tactics are useless. The airman is unable to obtain a clear sharp view of the country beneath owing to the interference offered to vision by atmospheric haze, even in the dearest of weather. In order to obtain reasonable accuracy of aim the corsair of the sky must fly at about 400 feet. In this respect, however, the aeroplane is at a decided advantage, as compared with the dirigible. The machine offers a considerably smaller target and moves with much greater speed. Experience of the war has shown that to attempt to hurl bombs from an extreme height is merely a waste of ammunition. True, they do a certain amount of damage, but this is due to luck, not judgment.
For success in aerial bomb operations the human element is mainly responsible. The daring airman is likely to achieve the greatest results, as events have proved, especially when his raid is sudden and takes the enemy by surprise. The raids carried out by Marix, Collet, Briggs, Babington, Sippe and many others have established this fact incontrovertibly. In all these operations the airmen succeeded because of their intrepidity and their decision to take advantage of cover, otherwise a prevailing mist or low-lying clouds. Flight-Lieutenant Collet approached the Zeppelin shed at Dusseldorf at an altitude of 6,000 feet. There was a bank of mist below, which he encountered at 1,500 feet. He traversed the depth of this layer and emerged therefrom at a height of only 400 feet above the ground. His objective was barely a quarter of a mile ahead. Travelling at high speed he launched his bombs with what proved to be deadly precision, and disappeared into cover almost before the enemy had grasped his intentions. Lieutenant-Commander, now Flight-Commander, Marix was even more daring. Apparently he had no mist in which to conceal himself but trusted almost entirely to the speed of his machine, which probably at times notched 90 miles per hour. Although his advent was detected and he was greeted with a spirited fusillade he clung to his determined idea. He headed straight for the Zeppelin shed, launched two bombs and swung into the higher reaches of the air without a moment's hesitation. His aim was deadly, since both bombs found their mark, and the Zeppelin docked within was blown up. The intrepid airman experienced several narrow escapes, for his aeroplane was struck twenty times, and one or two of the control wires were cut by passing bullets.
The raid carried out by Commanders Briggs and Babington in company with Lieutenant Sippe upon the Zeppelin workshops at Friedrichshafen was even more daring. Leaving the Allies' lines they ascended to an altitude of 4,500 feet, and at this height held to the pre-arranged course until they encountered a mist, which while protecting them from the alert eyes of the enemy below, was responsible for the separation of the raiders, so that each was forced to act independently and to trust to the compass to bring him out of the ordeal successfully. Lieutenant Sippe sighted Lake Constance, and taking advantage of the mist lying low upon the water, descended to such an extent that he found himself only a few feet above the roofs of the houses. Swinging round to the Lake he descended still lower until at last he was practically skimming the surface of the Lake, since he flew at the amazingly low height of barely seven feet off the water. There is no doubt that the noise of his motor was heard plainly by the enemy, but the mist completely enveloped him, and owing to the strange pranks that fog plays with sound deceived his antagonists.
At last, climbing above the bank of vapour, he found that he had overshot the mark, so he turned quickly and sped backwards. At the same time he discovered that he had been preceded by Commander Briggs, who was bombarding the shed furiously, and who himself was the object of a concentrated fire. Swooping down once more, Lieutenant Sippe turned, rained his bombs upon the objective beneath, drawing fire upon himself, but co-operating with Commander Babington, who had now reached the scene, he manoeuvred above the works and continued the bombardment until their ammunition was expended, when they sped home-wards under the cover of the mist. Considering the intensity of the hostile fire, it is surprising that the aeroplanes were not smashed to fragments. Undoubtedly the high speed of the machines and the zigzagging courses which were followed nonplussed the enemy. Commander Briggs was not so fortunate as his colleagues; a bullet pierced his petrol tank, compelling a hurried descent.
The most amazing feature of these aerial raids has been the remarkably low height at which the airmen have ventured to fly. While such a procedure facilitates marksmanship it increases the hazards. The airmen have to trust implicitly to the fleetness of their craft and to their own nerve. Bearing in mind the vulnerability of the average aeroplane, and the general absence of protective armouring against rifle fire at almost point-blank range, it shows the important part which the human element is compelled to play in bomb-dropping operations.
Another missile which has been introduced by the French airmen, and which is extremely deadly when hurled against dense masses of men, is the steel arrow, or "flechette" as it is called. It is a fiendish projectile consisting in reality of a pencil of solid polished steel, 4 3/4 inches in length. The lower end has a sharp tapering point, 5/8ths of an inch in length. For a distance of 1 1/8th of an inch above this point the cylindrical form of the pencil is preserved, but for the succeeding three inches to the upper end, the pencil is provided with four equally spaced angle flanges or vanes. This flanging of the upper end or tail ensures the arrow spinning rapidly as it falls through the air, and at the same times preserves its vertical position during its descent. The weight of the arrow is two-thirds of an ounce.
The method of launching this fearsome projectile is ingenious. A hundred or even more are packed in a vertical position in a special receptacle, placed upon the floor of the aeroplane, preferably near the foot of the pilot or observer. This receptacle is fitted with a bottom moving in the manner of a trap-door, and is opened by pressing a lever. The aviator has merely to depress this pedal with his foot, when the box is opened and the whole of the contents are released. The fall at first is somewhat erratic, but this is an advantage, as it enables the darts to scatter and to cover a wide area. As the rotary motion of the arrows increases during the fall, the direct line of flight becomes more pronounced until at last they assume a vertical direction free from all wobbling, so that when they alight upon the target they are quite plumb.
When launched from a height they strike the objective with terrific force, and will readily penetrate a soldier's helmet and skull. Indeed, when released at a height of 4,000 feet they have been known to pierce a mounted soldier's head, and pass vertically through his body and that of his horse also. Time after time German soldiers have found themselves pinned to the ground through the arrow striking and penetrating their feet. Owing to the extremely light weight of the darts they can be launched in batches of hundreds at a time, and in a promiscuous manner when the objective is a massed body of infantry or cavalry, or a transport convoy. They are extremely effective when thrown among horses even from a comparatively low altitude, not so much from the fatalities they produce, as from the fact that they precipitate a stampede among the animals, which is generally sufficiently serious and frantic to throw cavalry or a transport-train into wild confusion.
Although aerial craft, when skilfully handled, have proved highly successful as weapons of offence, the possibilities of such aggression as yet are scarcely realised; aerial tactics are in their infancy. Developments are moving rapidly. Great efforts are being centred upon the evolution of more formidable missiles to be launched from the clouds. The airman is destined to inspire far greater awe than at present, to exercise a still more demoralising influence, and to work infinitely more destruction.
CHAPTER XI. ARMOURED AEROPLANES
The stern test of war has served to reveal conclusively the fact that aerial craft can be put out of action readily and effectively, when once the marksman has picked up the range, whether the gunner be conducting his operations with an anti-aircraft gun stationed upon the ground, or from a hostile machine. It will be remembered that Flight-Commander Briggs, on the occasion of the daring British raid upon the Zeppelin sheds at Friedrichshafen, was brought to the ground by a bullet which penetrated his fuel tank. Several other vessels, British, German, French, and Russian alike, have been thrown out of action in a similar manner, and invariably the craft which has been disabled suddenly in this way has fallen precipitately to earth in the fatal headlong dive.
Previous to the outbreak of hostilities there was considerable divergence of opinion upon this subject. The general opinion was that the outspread wings and the stays which constituted the weakest parts of the structure were most susceptible to gun-fire, and thus were likely to fail. But practice has proved that it is the driving mechanism which is the most vulnerable part of the aeroplane.
This vulnerability of the essential feature of the flying machine is a decisive weakness, and exposes the aviator to a constant menace. It may be quite true that less than one bullet in a thousand may hit the machine, but when the lucky missile does find its billet its effect is complete. The fact must not be overlooked that the gunners who work the batteries of anti-aircraft guns are becoming more and more expert as a result of practice, so that as time progresses and improved guns for such duty are rendered available, the work of the aviator is likely to become more dangerous and difficult. Experience has proved that the high velocity gun of to-day is able to hurl its projectile or shell to an extreme height—far greater than was previously considered possible—so that considerable discretion has to be exercised by the airman, who literally bears his life in his hands.
Although elaborate trials were carried out upon the testing ranges with the weapons devised especially for firing upon flying machines, captive balloons being employed as targets, the data thus obtained were neither conclusive nor illuminating. The actual experiences of airmen have given us some very instructive facts upon this point for the first time.
It was formerly held that the zone of fire that is to be considered as a serious danger was within a height of about 4,500 feet. But this estimate was well within the mark. Airmen have found that the modern projectiles devised for this phase of operations are able to inflict distinctly serious damage at an altitude of 9,000 feet. The shell itself may have but little of its imparted velocity remaining at this altitude, but it must be remembered that when the missile bursts, the contents thereof are given an independent velocity, and a wide cone of dispersion, which is quite sufficient to achieve the desired end, inasmuch as the mechanism of the modern aeroplane and dirigible is somewhat delicate.
It was for this reason that the possibility of armouring the airship was discussed seriously, and many interesting experiments in this field were carried out. At the same time it was decided that the armouring should be effected upon lines analogous to that prevailing in warship engineering. The craft should not only be provided with defensive but also with aggressive armament. This decision was not viewed with general approbation. It was pointed out that questions of weight would arise, especially in relation to the speed of the machine. Increased weight, unless it were accompanied by a proportionate augmentation of power in the motor, would react against the efficiency and utility of the machine, would appreciably reduce its speed, and would affect its climbing powers very adversely. In some quarters it was maintained that as a result the machine would even prove unsuited to military operations, inasmuch as high speed is the primary factor in these.
Consequently it was decided by the foremost aviating experts that machines would have to be classified and allotted to particular spheres of work, just as warships are built in accordance with the special duty which they are expected to perform. In reconnaissance, speed is imperative, because such work in the air coincides with that of the torpedo-boat or scout upon the seas. It is designed to acquire information respecting the movements of the enemy, so as to assist the heavier arms in the plan of campaign. On the other hand, the fighting corsair of the skies might be likened to the cruiser or battleship. It need not possess such a high turn of speed, but must be equipped with hard-hitting powers and be protected against attacking fire.
One attempt to secure the adequate protection against gun-fire from the ground assumed the installation of bullet-proof steel plating, about one fifth of an inch thick, below the tank and the motor respectively. The disposition of the plating was such as to offer the minimum of resistance to the air and yet to present a plane surface to the ground below. So far as it went this protection was completely effective, but it failed to armour the vital parts against lateral, cross and downward fire while aloft. As the latter is more to be feared than the fire from the ground, seeing that it may be directed at point blank range, this was a decided defect and the armour was subsequently abandoned as useless.
The only effective method of achieving the desired end is to armour the whole of the carriage or fuselage of the adroplane, and this was the principle adopted by the Vickers Company. The Vickers military aeroplane is essentially a military machine. It is built of steel throughout. The skeleton of the machine is formed of an alloy which combines the qualities of aluminium and steel to ensure toughness, strength, and lightness. In fact, metal is employed liberally throughout, except in connection with the wings, which follow the usual lines of construction. The body of the car is sheathed with steel plating which is bullet proof against rifle or even shrapnel fire. The car is designed to carry two persons; the seats are therefore disposed tandem-wise, with the observer or gunner occupying the front seat.
The defensive armament is adequate for ordinary purposes. Being fitted with a 100 horse-power motor, fairly high speeds are attainable, although the velocity is not equal to that of machines constructed upon conventional lines, inasmuch as there is an appreciable increase in weight.
The car is short and designed upon excellent stream lines, so that the minimum of resistance to the air is offered, while at the same time the balancing is perfect. The sides of the car are brought up high enough to protect the aviators, only their heads being visible when they are seated. The prow of the car follows the lines generally adopted in high speed torpedo boat design; there is a sharp knife edge stem with an enclosed fo'c's'le, the latter housing the gun.
Another craft, designed for scouting operations, may be likened to the mosquito craft of the seas. This machine, while a biplane like the military aeroplane, is of lighter construction, everything being sacrificed to speed in this instance. It is fitted with a 100 horse-power motor and is designed to carry an observer if required. There is no offensive armament, however. The fuel tank capacity, moreover, is limited, being only sufficient for a two or three hours' flight. While this is adequate for general reconnoitring, which for the most part entails short high speed flights, there are occasions when the Staff demands more prolonged observations conducted over a greater radius. This requisition can be met by eliminating the observer, whose duties in this instance must be assumed by the pilot, and substituting in place of the former, a second fuel tank of sufficient capacity for a flight of four or five hours, thereby bringing the term of action in the air to about 6 1/4 hours. This machine travels at a very high speed and is eminently adapted to its specific duty, but it is of limited service for general purposes.
The arming of an aeroplane, to enable it to defend itself against hostile attack or to participate in raiding operations upon the aerial fleet of the enemy, appears to be a simple task, but as a matter of fact it is an undertaking beset with difficulties innumerable. This is especially the case where the aeroplane is of the tractive type, that is to say where the propellers are placed in the forefront of the machine and in their revolution serve to draw the machine forward. All other considerations must necessarily be sacrificed to the mounting of the propeller. Consequently it is by no means easy to allot a position for the installation of a gun, or if such should be found there is grave risk of the angle of fire being severely restricted. In fact, in many instances the mounting of a gun is out of the question: it becomes a greater menace to the machine than to the enemy.
The French aeronautical section of the military department devoted considerable study to this subject, but found the problem almost insurmount able. Monsieur Loiseau met with the greatest measure of success, and his system is being practised in the present campaign. This principle is essentially adapted to tractor aeroplanes. Forward of the pilot a special position is reserved for the gunner. A special mounting is provided towards the prow, and upon the upper face of the body of the machine. The gun mounting is disposed in such a manner that it is able to command a wide arc of fire in the vertical plane over the nose of the machine and more particularly in the downward direction.
The marksman is provided with a special seat, but when he comes into action he has to stand to manipulate his weapon. The lower part of his body is protected by a front shield of steel plate, a fifth of an inch in thickness, while a light railing extending upon either side and behind enables the gunner to maintain his position when the aeroplane is banking and climbing. The machine gun, of the Hotchkiss type, is mounted upon a swivel attached to a tripod, while the latter is built into the bracing of the car, so as to ensure a fairly steady gun platform.
While the gun in the hands of a trained marksman may be manipulated with destructive effect, the drawbacks to the arrangement are obvious. The gunner occupies a very exposed position, and, although the bullet-proof shield serves to break the effects of wind when travelling at high speed which renders the sighting and training of the weapon extremely difficult, yet he offers a conspicuous target, more particularly when the enemy is able to assume the upper position in the air as a result of superior speed in travelling. The gun, however, may be elevated to about 60 degrees, which elevation may be accentuated by the inclination of the aeroplane when climbing, while the facility with which the weapon may be moved through the horizontal plane is distinctly favourable.
But the aerial marksman suffers from one very pronounced defect: he has a severely restricted survey of everything below, since his vision is interrupted by the planes. The result is that an enemy who has lost ascendancy of position is comparatively safe if he is able to fly immediately below his adversary: the mitrailleuse of the latter cannot be trained upon him. On the other hand the enemy, if equipped with repeating rifles or automatic pistols, is able to inflict appreciable damage upon the craft overhead, the difficulties of firing vertically into the air notwithstanding.
In the Vickers system, where the propeller is mounted behind the car, the aeroplane thus operating upon the pusher principle, the nose of the car is occupied by the arm, which is a rifle calibre machine gun fitted upon a special mounting. The prow is provided with an embrasure for the weapon and the latter is so installed as to command an angle of 30 degrees on all sides of the longitudinal axis of the machine when in flight. In this instance the marksman is provided with complete protection on all sides, inasmuch as his position is in the prow, where the hood of the fo'c's'le shields him from overhead attack. The gun is protected by a special shield which moves with the gun barrel. This shield is provided with mica windows, through which the gunner is able to sight his arm, so that he is not inconvenienced in any way by the wind draught.
One shortcoming of such methods of arming an aeroplane will be observed. Ahead firing only is possible; the weapon cannot be trained astern, while similarly the line of fire on either broadside is severely limited. This is one reason why the machine-gun armament of aerial craft of the heavier-than-air type has not undergone extensive development. In many instances the pilot and observer have expressed their preference for repeating high velocity rifles over any form of fixed gun mounting, and have recourse to the latter only when the conditions are extremely favourable to its effective employment.
Efforts are now being made to equip the military type of aeroplane with both forward and astern firing guns. The urgency of astern fire has been brought home very vividly. Suppose, for instance, two hostile aeroplanes, A and B, are in the air. A has the advantage at first, but B is speedier and rapidly overhauls A. During the whole period of the overhauling movement the gun of B can be directed upon A, while the latter, owing to the arc of training being limited to c d cannot reply. Obviously in the running fight it would be to the advantage of B, although the fleeter machine, to keep behind A (position 1), but the latter is making towards its own lines.
Under these circumstances A must be headed off, so B crowds on speed to consummate this end. But in the overtaking process B renders his gun-fire ineffective, inasmuch as B passes beyond the arc of his gun which is represented by e f. But in so doing B comes within the firing arc of A (position 9). To minimise this danger B ascends to a higher level to obtain the paramount position.
If, however, B were equipped with an astern gun the aeroplane A would be within the fire of B when the forward gun of the latter could not be used. Similarly if A were also fitted with an astern gun it would be able to attack its pursuer the whole time B was to its rear and in this event, if its gun-fire were superior, it would be able to keep the latter to a safe distance, or compel B to manoeuvre into a superior position, which would entail a certain loss of time.
An astern firing gun would be valuable to B in another sense. Directly it had passed A or brought the latter within the zone of its astern gun it could maintain its fire at the most advantageous range, because owing to its speed it would be able to dictate the distance over which shots should be exchanged and if mounted with a superior weapon would be able to keep beyond the range of A's guns while at the same time it would keep A within range of its own gun and consequently rake the latter. In the interests of self-preservation A would be compelled to change its course; in fact, B would be able to drive it in any direction he desired, as he would command A's movements by gun-fire.
The value of combined ahead and astern firing has been appreciated, but there is one difficulty which at the moment appears to be insuperable the clearance of the propeller. At the moment astern-firing, if such it may be called, is maintained by repeating rifles, but this armament is not to be compared with machine-gun firing, as the latter with its capacity to pour 400 to 600 shots a minute, is far more deadly, particularly when the weapon is manipulated by a crack gunner.
Up to the present the offensive armament of aeroplanes has been confined to light machine guns such as the Hotchkiss, Berthier, Schwartlose, and Maxim weapons. So far as the arming of aeroplanes is concerned the indispensable condition is light weight. With airships this factor is not so vital, the result being that some dirigibles are mounted with guns, throwing one pound bursting shells, fitted either with delay action or percussion fuses, the former for preference. These shells are given a wide cone of dispersion. Experiments are also being made with a gun similar to the pom-pom which proved so useful in South Africa, the gun throwing small shells varying from four to eight ounces in weight at high velocity and in rapid succession. While such missiles would not be likely to inflict appreciable damage upon an armoured aeroplane, they would nevertheless be disconcerting to the aviators subjected to such fire, and in aerial combats the successful undermining of the adversary's moral is of far greater importance than in land operations, since immediately ascendancy in the artillery operations is attained the final issue is a matter of moments.
But the most devastating arm which has yet been contrived for aerial operations is the light machine gun which has recently been perfected. The one objective with this weapon is to disable the hostile aircraft's machinery. It fires an armour piercing projectile which, striking the motor of any aircraft, would instantly put the latter out of action. The shell has a diameter of about.75 inch and weighs about four ounces. The gun is a hybrid of the mitrailleuse and the French "Soixante-quinze," combining the firing rapidity of the former with the recoil mechanism of the latter. This missile has established its ability to penetrate the defensive armouring of any aeroplane and the motor of the machine at 1,000 yards' range. This offensive arm is now being manufactured, so that it is likely to be seen in the near future as the main armament of aeroplanes.
At the moment widespread efforts are being made in the direction of increasing the offensive efficiency of aircraft. It is one of the phases of ingenuity which has been stimulated into activity as a result of the war.
CHAPTER XII. BATTLES IN THE AIR
Ever since the days of Jules Verne no theme has proved so popular in fiction as fighting in the air. It was a subject which lent itself to vivid imagination and spirited picturesque portrayal. Discussion might be provoked, but it inevitably proved abortive, inasmuch as there was a complete absence of data based upon actual experience. The novelist was without any theory: he avowedly depended upon the brilliance of his imagination. The critic could only theorise, and no matter how dogmatic his reasonings, they were certainly as unconvincing as those of the object of his attack.
But truth has proved stranger than fiction. The imaginative pictures of the novelist have not only been fulfilled but surpassed, while the theorising critic has been utterly confounded. Fighting in the air has become so inseparable from the military operations of to-day that it occurs with startling frequency. A contest between hostile aeroplanes, hundreds of feet above the earth, is no longer regarded as a dramatic, thrilling spectacle: it has become as matter-of-fact as a bayonet melee between opposed forces of infantry.
A duel in the clouds differs from any other form of encounter. It is fought mercilessly: there can be no question of quarter or surrender. The white flag is no protection, for the simple reason that science and mechanical ingenuity have failed, so far, to devise a means of taking an aeroplane in tow. The victor has no possible method of forcing the vanquished to the ground in his own territory except driving. If such a move be made there is the risk that the latter will take the advantage of a critical opportunity to effect his escape, or to turn the tables. For these reasons the fight is fought to a conclusive finish.
To aspire to success in these combats waged in the trackless blue, speed, initiative, and daring are essential. Success falls to the swift in every instance. An aeroplane travelling at a high speed, and pursuing an undulating or irregular trajectory is almost impossible to hit from the ground, as sighting is so extremely difficult. Sighting from another machine, which likewise is travelling rapidly, and pursuing an irregular path, is far more so. Unless the attacker can approach relatively closely to his enemy the possibility of hitting him is extremely remote. Rifle or gun-fire must be absolutely point blank.
When a marauding aeroplane is espied the attacking corsair immediately struggles for the strategical position, which is above his adversary. To fire upwards from one aeroplane at another is virtually impossible, at least with any degree of accuracy. The marksman is at a hopeless disadvantage. If the pilot be unaccompanied and entirely dependent upon his own resources he cannot hope to fire vertically above him, for the simple reason that in so doing he must relinquish control of his machine. A rifle cannot possibly be sighted under such conditions, inasmuch as it demands that the rifleman shall lean back so as to obtain control of his weapon and to bring it to bear upon his objective. Even if a long range Mauser or other automatic pistol of the latest type be employed, two hands are necessary for firing purposes, more particularly as, under such conditions, the machine, if not kept under control, is apt to lurch and pitch disconcertingly.
Even a colleague carried for the express purpose of aggression is handicapped. If he has a machinegun, such as a Maxim or a mitrailleuse, it is almost out of the question to train it vertically. Its useful vertical training arc is probably limited to about 80 degrees, and at this elevation the gunner has to assume an extremely uncomfortable position, especially upon an aeroplane, where, under the best of circumstances, he is somewhat cramped.
On the other hand the man in the aeroplane above holds the dominating position. He is immediately above his adversary and firing may be carried out with facility. The conditions are wholly in his favour. Sighting and firing downwards, even if absolutely vertically, imposes the minimum physical effort, with the result that the marksman is able to bring a steadier aim upon his adversary. Even if the machine be carrying only the pilot, the latter is able to fire upon his enemy without necessarily releasing control of his motor, even for a moment.
If he is a skilled sharpshooter, and the exigencies demand, he can level, sight, and fire his weapon with one hand, while under such circumstances an automatic self-loading pistol can be trained upon the objective with the greatest ease. If the warplane be carrying a second person, acting as a gunner, the latter can maintain an effective rifle fusillade, and, at the same time, manipulate his machine-gun with no great effort, maintaining rifle fire until the pilot, by manoeuvring, can enable the mitrailleuse or Maxim to be used to the greatest advantage.
Hence the wonderful display of tactical operations when two hostile aeroplanes sight one another. The hunted at first endeavours to learn the turn of speed which his antagonist commands. If the latter is inferior, the pursued can either profit from his advantage and race away to safety, or at once begin to manoeuvre for position. If he is made of stern stuff, he attempts the latter feat without delay. The pursuer, if he realises that he is out classed in pace, divines that his quarry will start climbing if he intends to show fight, so he begins to climb also.
Now success in this tactical move will accrue to the machine which possesses the finest climbing powers, and here again, of course, speed is certain to count. But, on the other hand, the prowess of the aviator—the human element once more—must not be ignored. The war has demonstrated very convincingly that the personal quality of the aviator often becomes the decisive factor.
A spirited contest in the air is one of the grimmest and most thrilling spectacles possible to conceive, and it displays the skill of the aviator in a striking manner. Daring sweeps, startling wheels, breathless vol-planes, and remarkable climbs are carried out. One wonders how the machine can possibly withstand the racking strains to which it is subjected. The average aeroplane demands space in which to describe a turn, and the wheel has to be manipulated carefully and dexterously, an operation requiring considerable judgment on the part of the helmsman.
But in an aerial duel discretion is flung to the winds. The pilot jambs his helm over in his keen struggle to gain the superior position, causing the machine to groan and almost to heel over. The stem stresses of war have served to reveal the perfection of the modern aeroplane together with the remarkable strength of its construction. In one or two instances, when a victor has come to earth, subsequent examination has revealed the enormous strains to which the aeroplane has been subjected. The machine has been distorted; wires have been broken—wires which have succumbed to the enormous stresses which have been imposed and have not been snapped by rifle fire. One well-known British airman, who was formerly a daring automobilist, confided to me that a fight in the air "is the finest reliability trial for an aeroplane that was ever devised!"
In these desperate struggles for aerial supremacy the one party endeavours to bring his opponent well within the point-blank range of his armament: the other on his part strives just as valiantly to keep well out of reach. The latter knows fully well that his opponent is at a serious disadvantage when beyond point-blank range, for the simple reason that in sighting the rifle or automatic pistol, it is difficult, if not impossible while aloft, to judge distances accurately, and to make the correct allowances for windage.
If, however, the dominating aviator is armed with a machine gun he occupies the superior position, because he can pour a steady hail of lead upon his enemy. The employment of such a weapon when the contest is being waged over friendly territory has many drawbacks. Damage is likely to be inflicted among innocent observers on the earth below; the airman is likely to bombard his friends. For this very reason promiscuous firing, in the hope of a lucky shot finding a billet in the hostile machine, is not practised. Both parties appear to reserve their fire until they have drawn within what may be described as fighting distance, otherwise point blank range, which may be anything up to 300 yards.
Some of the battles between the German and the French or British aeroplanes have been waged with a total disregard of the consequences. Both realise that one or the other must perish, and each is equally determined to triumph. It is doubtful whether the animosity between the opposing forces is manifested anywhere so acutely as in the air. In some instances the combat has commenced at 300 feet or so above the earth, and has been fought so desperately, the machines climbing and endeavouring to outmanoeuvre each other, that an altitude of over 5,000 feet has been attained before they have come to close grips.
The French aviator is nimble, and impetuous: the German aviator is daring, but slow in thought: the British airman is a master of strategy, quick in thought, and prepared to risk anything to achieve his end. The German airman is sent aloft to reconnoitre the enemy and to communicate his information to his headquarters. That is his assigned duty and he performs it mechanically, declining to fight, as the welfare of his colleagues below is considered to be of more vital importance than his personal superiority in an aerial contest. But if he is cornered he fights with a terrible and fatalistic desperation.
The bravery of the German airmen is appreciated by the Allies. The French flying-man, with his traditional love for individual combat, seeks and keenly enjoys a duel. The British airman regards such a contest as a mere incident in the round of duty, but willingly accepts the challenge when it is offered. It is this manifestation of what may be described as acquiescence in any development that enabled the British flying corps, although numerically inferior, to gain its mastery of the air so unostentatiously and yet so completely.
All things considered an aeroplane duel is regarded as a fairly equal combat. But what of a duel between an aeroplane and a dirigible? Which holds the advantage? This question has not been settled, at any rate conclusively, but it is generally conceded that up to a certain point the dirigible is superior. It certainly offers a huge and attractive target, but rifle fire at its prominent gas-bag is not going to cause much havoc. The punctures of the envelope may represent so many vents through which the gas within may effect a gradual escape, but considerable time must elapse before the effect of such a bombardment becomes pronounced in its result, unless the gas-bag is absolutely riddled with machine gun-fire, when descent must be accelerated.
On the other hand, it is to be presumed that the dirigible is armed. In this event it has a distinct advantage. It has a steady gun-platform enabling the weapons of offence to be trained more easily and an enhanced accuracy of fire to be obtained. In order to achieve success it is practically imperative that an aeroplane should obtain a position above the dirigible, but the latter can ascend in a much shorter space of time, because its ascent is vertical, whereas the aeroplane must describe a spiral in climbing. Under these circumstances it is relatively easy for the airship to outmanoeuvre the aeroplane in the vertical plane, and to hold the dominating position.
But even should the aeroplane obtain the upper position it is not regarded with fear. Some of the latest Zeppelins have a machine gun mounted upon the upper surface of the envelope, which can be trained through 360 degrees and elevated to about 80 degrees vertical. Owing to the steady gun platform offered it holds command in gun-fire, so that the aeroplane, unless the aviator is exceptionally daring, will not venture within the range of the dirigible. It is stated, however, that this upper gun has proved unsatisfactory, owing to the stresses and strains imposed upon the framework of the envelope of the Zeppelin during firing, and it has apparently been abandoned. The position, however, is still available for a sniper or sharpshooter.
The position in the sky between two such combatants is closely analogous to that of a torpedo boat and a Dreadnought. The latter, so long as it can keep the former at arm's, or rather gun's, distance is perfectly safe. The torpedo boat can only aspire to harass its enemy by buzzing around, hoping that a lucky opportunity will develop to enable it to rush in and to launch its torpedo. It is the same with the aeroplane when arrayed against a Zeppelin. It is the mosquito craft of the air.
How then can a heavier-than-air machine triumph over the unwieldy lighter-than-air antagonist? Two solutions are available. If it can get above the dirigible the adroplane may bring about the dirigible's destruction by the successful launch of a bomb. The detonation of the latter would fire the hydrogen within the gas-bag or bags, in which event the airship would fall to earth a tangled wreck. Even if the airship were inflated with a non-inflammable gas—the Germans claim that their Zeppelins now are so inflated—the damage wrought by the bomb would be so severe as to destroy the airship's buoyancy, and it would be forced to the ground.
The alternative is very much more desperate. It involves ramming the dirigible. This is undoubtedly possible owing to the speed and facile control of the aeroplane, but whether the operation would be successful remains to be proved. The aeroplane would be faced with such a concentrated hostile fire as to menace its own existence—its forward rush would be frustrated by the dirigible just as a naval vessel parries the ramming tactics of an enemy by sinking the latter before she reaches her target, while if it did crash into the hull of the dirigible, tearing it to shreds, firing its gas, or destroying its equilibrium, both protagonists would perish in the fatal dive to earth. For this reason ramming in mid-air is not likely to be essayed except when the situation is desperate.
What happens when two aeroplanes meet in dire combat in mid-air and one is vanquished? Does the unfortunate vessel drop to earth like a stone, or does it descend steadily and reach the ground uninjured? So far as actual experience has proved, either one of the foregoing contingencies may happen. In one such duel the German aeroplane was observed to start suddenly upon a vol-plane to the ground. Its descending flight carried it beyond the lines of the Allies into the territory of its friends. Both came to the conclusion that the aviator had effected his escape. But subsequent investigation revealed the fact that a lucky bullet from the Allies' aeroplane had lodged in the brain of the German pilot, killing him instantly. At the moment when Death over took him the aviator had set his plane for the descent to the ground, and the machine came to earth in the manner of a glider.
But in other instances the descent has been far more tragic. The aeroplane, deprived of its motive power, has taken the deadly headlong dive to earth. It has struck the ground with terrific violence, burying its nose in the soil, showing incidentally that a flying machine is an indifferent plough, and has shattered itself, the debris soaked with the escaping fuel becoming ignited. In any event, after such a fall the machine is certain to be a wreck. The motor may escape damage, in which event it is salvaged, the machine subsequently being purposely sacrificed to the flames, thereby rendering it no longer available to the enemy even if captured. In many instances the hostile fire has smashed some of the stays and wires, causing the aeroplane to lose its equilibrium, and sending it to earth in the manner of the proverbial stone, the aviators either being dashed to pieces or burned to death.
What are the vulnerable parts of the aeroplane? While the deliberate intention of either combatant is to put his antagonist hors de combat, the disablement of the machine may be achieved without necessarily killing or even seriously wounding the hostile airman. The prevailing type of aeroplane is highly susceptible to derangement: it is like a ship without armour plate protection. The objective of the antagonist is the motor or the fuel-tank, the vital parts of the machine, as much as the aviator seated within.
A well-planted shot, which upsets the mechanism of the engine, or a missile which perforates the fuel tank, thereby depriving the motor of its sustenance, will ensure victory as conclusively as the death of the aviator himself. Rifle fire can achieve either of these ends with little difficulty. Apart from these two nerve-centres, bombardment is not likely to effect the desired disablement, inasmuch as it cannot be rendered completely effective. The wings may be riddled like a sieve, but the equilibrium of the machine is not seriously imperilled thereby. Even many of the stays may be shot away, but bearing in mind the slender objective they offer, their destruction is likely to be due more to luck than judgment. On the other hand, the motor and fuel tank of the conventional machine offer attractive targets: both may be put out of action readily, and the disablement of the motive power of an enemy's craft, be it torpedo-boat, battleship, or aeroplane, immediately places the same at the assailant's mercy.
Nevertheless, of course, the disablement of the airman brings about the desired end very effectively. It deprives the driving force of its controlling hand; The aeroplane becomes like a ship without a rudder: a vessel whose helmsman has been shot down. It is unmanageable, and likely to become the sport of the element in which it moves. It is for this reason that aviators have been urged to direct their fire upon the men and mechanism of a dirigible in the effort to put it out of action. An uncontrolled airship is more likely to meet with its doom than an aeroplane. The latter will inevitably glide to earth, possibly damaging itself seriously in the process, as events in the war have demonstrated, but a helpless airship at once becomes the sport of the wind, and anyone who has assisted, like myself, in the descent of a vessel charged with gas and floating in the air, can appreciate the difficulties experienced in landing. An uncontrolled Zeppelin, for instance, would inevitably pile up in a tangled twisted ruin if forced to descend in the manner of an ordinary balloon. Consequently the pilot of a dirigible realises to the full the imperative urgency of keeping beyond the point-blank fire of aerial mosquito craft.
The assiduity with which British aviators are prepared to swarm to the attack has been responsible for a display of commendable ingenuity on the part of the German airman. Nature has provided some of its creatures, such as the octopus, for instance, with the ways and means of baffling its pursuers. It emits dense clouds of inky fluid when disturbed, and is able to effect its escape under cover of this screen.
The German aviator has emulated the octopus. He carries not only explosive bombs but smoke balls as well. When he is pursued and he finds himself in danger of being overtaken, the Teuton aviator ignites these missiles and throws them overboard. The aeroplane becomes enveloped in a cloud of thick impenetrable smoke. It is useless to fire haphazard at the cloud, inasmuch as it does not necessarily cover the aviator. He probably has dashed out of the cloud in such a way as to put the screen between himself and his pursuer.
In such tactics he has merely profited by a method which is practised freely upon the water. The torpedo boat flotilla when in danger of being overwhelmed by superior forces will throw off copious clouds of smoke. Under this cover it is able to steal away, trusting to the speed of the craft to carry them well beyond gunshot. The "smoke screen," as it is called, is an accepted and extensively practised ruse in naval strategy, and is now adopted by its mosquito colleagues of the air.
CHAPTER XIII. TRICKS AND RUSES TO BAFFLE THE AIRMAN
The airman has not been allowed to hold his undisputed sway in military operations for long. Desperate situations demand drastic remedies and already considerable and illuminating ingenuity is being displayed to baffle and mislead the scout of the skies.
It is a somewhat curious and noteworthy fact, that the Germans were among the first to realise the scope of the airman's activities, and the significance of their relation to the conveyance of intimate information and the direction of artillery fire. Consequently, they now spare no effort to convey illusory information, in the hope that the hostile force may ultimately make a false move which may culminate in disaster.
Thus, for instance, as much endeavour is bestowed upon the fashioning of dummy trenches as upon the preparation of the actual lines of defence. And every care will be taken to indicate that the former are strongly held. The dug-outs are complete and at places are apparently cunningly masked. If the airman is flying swiftly, he is likely to fail to distinguish the dummy from the real trenches. To him the defences appear to be far more elaborate and more strongly held than is the actual case.
The advantage of this delusion is obvious when a retreat is being made. It enables the enemy to withdraw his forces deliberately and in perfect order, and to assume another and stronger position comparatively at leisure. The difficulty of detecting the dummies is emphasised, inasmuch as now, whenever the sound of an aeroplane is heard, or a glimpse thereof is obtained, the men keep well down and out of sight. Not a sign of movement is observable. For all the airman may know to the contrary, the trenches may be completely empty, whereas, as a matter of fact, they are throbbing with alert infantry, anxious for a struggle with the enemy.
This is one instance where the dirigible is superior to the aeroplane. The latter can only keep circling round and round over the suspicious position; the movement through the air interferes with close continuous observation. On the other hand, the dirigible can maintain a stationary position aloft for hours on end. Then the issue is resolved into a contest of patience, with the advantage to the airman. The soldiers in the trenches fret and fume under cover; confined concealment is irksome and is a supreme test of the nerves. Unless the soldiers are made of very stern stuff, physical endurance succumbs. Some rash act—apparently very trivial—may be committed; it suffices for the vigilant sentinel overhead. He detects the slender sign of life, forms his own conclusions, and returns to his headquarters with the intelligence that the enemy is playing "Brer Rabbit."
It has also become increasingly difficult for the airman to gather absolutely trustworthy data concerning the disposition and movement of troops. Small columns are now strung out along the highways to convey the impression that the moving troops are in far greater force than is actually the case, while the main body is under the cover offered by a friendly wood and is safe from detection. The rapidity with which thousands of men are able to disappear when the word "Airman" is passed round is astonishing. They vanish as completely and suddenly as if swallowed by the earth or dissolved into thin air. They conceal themselves under bushes, in ditches, lie prone under hedgerows, dart into houses and outbuildings—in short, take every cover which is available, no matter how slender it may seem, with baffling alacrity. The attenuated column, however, is kept moving along the highway for the express purpose of deceiving the airman.
Advancing troops also are now urged to move forward under the shelter of trees, even if the task entails marching in single or double file, to escape the prying eyes of the man above. By keeping close to the line of trunks, thus taking full advantage of the overhanging branches, and marching in such a manner as to create little dust, it is possible to escape the aerial scout.
The concealment of cavalry, however, is somewhat difficult. An animal, especially if he be unaccustomed to the noise of the aeroplane, is likely to become startled, and to give vent to a frightened and vociferous neighing which invariably provokes a hearty response from his equine comrades. The sharp ear of the airman does not fail to distinguish this sound above the music of his motor. Again, he has come to regard all copses and stretches of undergrowth with suspicion. Such may or may not harbour the enemy, but there is no risk in making an investigation. He swoops down, and when a short distance above the apparently innocent copse, circles round it two or three times. Still undecided, he finally hurls a bomb. Its detonation invariably proves effective. The horses stampede and the secret is out. Even foot soldiers must be severely trained and experienced to resist the natural inclination to break cover when such a missile is hurled into their midst.
Frequently a force, which has laboured under the impression that it is safe from detection, has revealed its presence unwittingly and upon the spur of the moment. If the men be steeled against the bomb attack, it is almost impossible to resist the inclination to take a shot when the airman, swooping down, ventures so temptingly near as to render him an enticing target almost impossible to miss. As a rule, however, the observer is on the alert for such a betrayal of a force's existence. When the bomb fails to scatter the enemy, or the men are proof against the temptation to fire a volley, a few rounds from the aeroplane's machine gun often proves effective. If the copse indeed be empty no harm is done, beyond the abortive expenditure of a few rounds of ammunition: if it be occupied, the fruits of the manoeuvre are attractive. Cunning is matched against cunning, and the struggle for supremacy in the art of craftiness is keen.
The French Flying Corps have had recourse to an ingenious ruse for accomplishing two ends—the one to draw concealed artillery fire, and the other to pre-occupy the airmen. Two German aerial scouts observed a French machine flying at a somewhat venturesome height over their masked artillery. Divining the reason for the hostile intrepidity they gave chase. Circling round the French machine they assailed it with machine-gun fire. The enemy appeared to take no notice but continued his gradual descent in a steady line.
Presently the German airmen, having drawn sufficiently near, observed that the French aviator was inert. Had he been killed? Everything pointed to such a conclusion, especially as they had raked the aeroplane fore and aft with bullets. But still suspicious they continued their circling movements, their attention so concentrated upon their quarry that they had not observed another move. It was the crash of guns from their masked artillery which broke in upon their absorption. Looking round, they observed three French aeroplanes soaring around and above them at high speed. Scarcely had they realised the situation before a spirited mitraireuse fire was rained upon them. One of the German aeroplanes was speedily disabled. Its fuel tank was riddled and it sank rapidly, finally crashing to earth in the deadly dive head foremost, and killing both its occupants in the fall. The second aeroplane hurried away with its pilot wounded. In the excitement of the aerial melee the first French aeroplane had been forgotten. It was now scarcely 100 feet above the German artillery. A capture appeared to be imminent, but the Germans received a rude surprise. Suddenly the aeroplane exploded and a hail of shrapnel burst over the heads of the artillerymen.
The circumstance was decidedly uncanny, but after two or three such experiences of exploding aeroplanes the matter was explained. The apparently helpless aeroplane was merely a glider, which, instead of carrying a man, had a booby-trap aboard.
It appears that the French airmen have found a use for the aeroplanes which are considered unsafe for further use. The motor and propeller are removed and the dummy of explosives is strapped into position. The laden glider is then taken aloft by means of an airship, and in the concealment of the clouds is released, the rudder being so set as to ensure a gradual vol-plane towards the suspicious position below. The explosive cargo is set with a time fuse, the arrangement being that the contents will be detonated while the machine is near the ground, unless this end is accelerated by a well-planted shell from an anti-aircraft gun. The decoy glider is generally accompanied by one or two aeroplanes under control, which keep under the cover of the clouds until the hostile aviators have been drawn into the air, when they swoop down to the attack. The raiders are fully aware that they are not likely to become the target of fire from the ground, owing to the fact that the enemy's artillery might hit its friends. Consequently the antagonistic airmen are left to settle their own account. In the meantime the dummy machine draws nearer to the ground to explode and to scatter its death-dealing fragments of steel, iron, and bullets in all directions.
Possibly in no other phase of warfare is subterfuge practised so extensively as in the concealment of guns. The branches of trees constitute the most complete protection and guns are placed in position beneath a liberal cover of this character. The branches also offer a screen for the artillerymen, who can lurk beneath this shelter until the aeroplane has passed. To complete the illusion dummy guns fashioned from tree trunks and the wheels of useless limbers are rigged up, and partially hidden under branches, the idea being to convey the impression to the man aloft that they are the actual artillery.
The aerial scout observes the dummies beneath the sparse covering of branches. Congratulating himself upon his sharp eyesight, he returns to his base with the intelligence that he has found the enemy's guns he indicates their position upon the map, and in some cases returns to notify the position of the weapons by smoke-ball or tinsel, when they are immediately subjected to a severe bombardment. He follows the shell-fire and sees the arms put out of action. He returns to camp satisfied with his exploit, oblivious of the smiles and laughter of the hostile artillerymen, who have their guns safely in position and well masked some distance away. The dummies are imperfectly concealed purposely, so that they may be discovered by the aerial scout, while the real guns are completely masked and ready to belch forth from another point. In one or two cases the dummies have been rigged up in such a manner as to convey the impression, when seen from aloft, that a whole battery has been put out of action, barrels and wheels as well as broken limbers strewing the ground in all directions.
Moving masses of soldiers are also resorting to cunning in order to mislead the airman or to escape his observation. At the battle of Haelen, during which engagement the German warplanes were exceptionally active, the Belgian soldiers covered their heads with bundles of wheat snatched from the standing stooks, and under this cover lurked in a field where the corn was still standing. From aloft their forms defied detection: the improvised headgear completely covered them and blended effectively with the surrounding wheat. In another instance the French misled a German airman somewhat effectively. What appeared to be cavalry was seen to be retreating along the country road, and the airman returned hurriedly to report. A German squadron was dispatched in hasty pursuit. But as it rounded a copse skirting the road it received a murderous fire at close quarters, which decimated the ranks and sent the survivors flying for their lives along the road up which they had ridden so confidently. Had the aviator been in a position to observe the horses more closely, he would have found that what appeared to be riders on their backs were in reality sacks stuffed with straw, dressed in old uniforms, and that a mere handful of men were driving the animals forward. The cavalrymen had purposely dismounted and secreted themselves in the wood in anticipation of such a pursuit as was made.
While the Germans do not appear to be so enterprising in this form of ingenuity they have not been idle. A French airman flying over the Teuton lines observed the outermost trenches to be alive with men whose helmets were distinctly visible. The airman reported his observations and the trench was subjected to terrific shell fire. Subsequently the French made a spirited charge, but to their dismay found that the outermost German trench was occupied by dummies fashioned from all sorts of materials and crowned with helmets! This ruse had enabled the German lines to be withdrawn to another position in safety and comparatively at leisure.
Before war was declared the German military experts were emphasising the importance of trees for masking troops and guns against aerial observation. One of the foremost authorities upon military aviation only a few months ago urged the German Military Staff to encourage the planting of orchards, not for the purpose of benefiting agriculture or in the interests of the farmers, but merely for military exigencies.
He pointed to the extensive orchards which exist in Alsace-Lorraine and Baden, the military covering value of which he had determined from personal experience, having conducted aerial operations while military were moving to and fro under the cover of the trees. He declared that the cover was efficient and that under the circumstances the laying out of extensive orchards in strategical places should be carried out without any delay. This, he urged, was a national and not a private obligation. He advocated the bestowal of subsidies on the farmers to encourage the planting of fruit trees. He suggested that the trees should be provided by the State, and given to all who were prepared to plant them; that substantial prizes should be awarded to encourage the rapid growth thereof, and that annual prizes should be awarded to the man who would undertake their cultivation and pruning, not from the fruit-yielding point of view, but for facilitating the movement of troops beneath their dense branches.
He even urged the military acquisition of suitable land and its determined, skilful, and discreet exploitation by those who loved the Fatherland. He emphasised the necessity for keeping such orchards under military control, only vouchsafing sufficient powers to the local authorities to ensure the desired consummation. He maintained that, if the work were prosecuted upon the right lines and sufficient financial assistance were given, the purpose in view could be achieved without saddling the war department with any unremunerative or excessive burden. He admitted that the process of raising fruit trees to the stage when they would afford adequate cover would be tedious and somewhat prolonged, but argued that the military advantages, such as enabling troops to move below the welcome shelter with absolute freedom and without physical fatigue, would be an ample compensation.
The utility of such cover to artillery was another factor he did not fail to emphasise. He dwelt seriously upon the difficulty of rendering permanent gun emplacements and heavy artillery invisible to the airman by resort to the usual type of gun shields. The latter may be located with ease by alert airmen, whereas if the guns were under cover of fruit trees they would be able to accomplish their deadly mission without betraying their presence to the aerial scout. Moreover, by pruning the trees in such a manner as to ensure free movement beneath, the artillery would be able to advance without betraying the fact to the enemy.
This authority vigorously insisted that the work should be carried out without a moment's delay as it was vital to the Fatherland. In the light of recent events, and the excellent cover which is offered by the orchards of the territory he cited as an illustration of his contention, such a disclosure is pregnant with meaning. It throws a new light upon the thorough methods with which the Germans carried out their military preparations, and incidentally shows that they were fully alive to every possible development. Fruit-raising as a complement to military operations may be a new line of discussion, but it serves to reveal the German in his true light, ready for every contingency, and shows how thoroughly he appreciates the danger from the man in the clouds.
CHAPTER XIV. ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUNS. MOBILE WEAPONS.
When the airship and the aeroplane became accepted units of warfare it was only natural that efforts should be concentrated upon the evolution of ways and means to compass their destruction or, at least, to restrict their field of activity. But aircraft appeared to have an immense advantage in combat. They possess virtually unlimited space in which to manoeuvre, and are able to select the elevation from which to hurl their missiles of destruction.
There is another and even more important factor in their favour. A projectile fired, or even dropped, from a height, say of 5,000 feet, is favourably affected by the force of gravity, with the result that it travels towards the earth with accumulating energy and strikes the ground with decisive force.
On the other hand, a missile discharged into space from a weapon on the earth has to combat this action of gravity, which exercises a powerful nullifying influence upon its flight and velocity, far in excess of the mere resistance offered by the air. In other words, whereas the projectile launched from aloft has the downward pull of the earth or gravitational force in its favour, the shell fired from the ground in the reverse direction has to contend against this downward pull and its decelerating effect.
At the time when aircraft entered the realms of warfare very little was known concerning the altitudes to which projectiles could be hurled deliberately. Certain conclusive information upon this point was available in connection with heavy howitzer fire, based on calculations of the respective angles at which the projectile rose into the air and fell to the ground, and of the time the missile took to complete its flight from the gun to the objective. But howitzer fire against aircraft was a sheer impossibility: it was like using a six-inch gun to kill a fly on a window pane at a thousand yards' range. Some years ago certain experiments in aerial firing with a rifle were undertaken in Switzerland. The weapon was set vertically muzzle upwards and discharged. From the time which elapsed between the issue of the bullet from the muzzle until it struck the earth it was possible to make certain deductions, from which it was estimated that the bullet reached an altitude of 600 feet or so. But this was merely conjecture.
Consequently when artillerists entered upon the study of fighting air-craft with small arms and light guns, they were compelled to struggle in the dark to a very pronounced extent, and this darkness was never satisfactorily dispelled until the present war, for the simple reason that there were no means of getting conclusive information. The German armament manufacturers endeavoured to solve the problem by using smoking shells or missiles fitted with what are known as tracers. By following the ascensional path of the projectiles as revealed by the smoke it was possible to draw certain conclusions. But these were by no means convincing or illuminating, as so many factors affected the issue.
Despite the peculiar and complex difficulties associated with the problem it was attacked some what boldly. In this trying field of artillery research the prominent German armament manufacturers, Krupp of Essen and Ehrhardt of Dusseldorf, played a leading part, the result being that before the airship or the aeroplane was received within the military fold, the anti-aircraft gun had been brought into the field of applied science. The sudden levelling-up serves to illustrate the enterprise of the Germans in this respect as well as their perspicacity in connection with the military value of aircraft.
Any gun we can hope to employ against aircraft with some degree of success must fulfil special conditions, for it has to deal with a difficult and elusive foe. Both the lighter-than-air and the heavier than-air craft possess distinctive features and varying degrees of mobility. Taking the first-named, the facility with which it can vary its altitude is a disconcerting factor, and is perplexing to the most skilful gunner, inasmuch as he is called upon to judge and change the range suddenly.
On the other hand, the artilleryman is favoured in certain directions. The range of utility of the airship is severely limited. If its avowed mission is reconnaissance and conclusive information concerning the disposition of forces, artillery and so forth is required, experience has proved that such work cannot be carried out satisfactorily or with any degree of accuracy at a height exceeding 5,000 feet, and a distance beyond six miles. But even under these circumstances the climatic conditions must be extremely favourable. If the elements are unpropitious the airship must venture nearer to its objective. These data were not difficult to collect, inasmuch as they were more or less available from the results of military observations with captive balloons, the conditions being somewhat similar. With the ordinary captive balloon it has been found that, in clear weather, a radius of about 3 3/4 miles at the maximum elevation constitutes its range of reliable utility.
With the aeroplane, however, the conditions are very dissimilar. In the first place the machine owing to its diminutive size as compared with the airship, offers a small and inconspicuous target. Then there is its high independent speed, which is far beyond that of the airship. Furthermore its mobility is greater. It can wheel, turn sharply to the right or to the left, and pursue an irregular undulating flight in the horizontal plane, which renders it well nigh impossible for a gunner to pick it up. The machine moves at a higher relative speed than that at which the gun can be trained. It is the rapid and devious variation which so baffles the gunner, who unless he be highly skilled and patient, is apt to commence to fire wildly after striving for a few moments, and in vain, to pick up the range; he trusts to luck or depends upon blind-shooting, which invariably results in a waste of ammunition.
A gun, to be of tangible destructive efficiency when directed against aircraft, especially those depending upon the gas-bag for equilibrium, must be of special design. It must be capable of firing at an angle only a few degrees less than the absolute vertical, and in order to follow the rapid and involved movements of its objective, must be so mobile that it can be trained through a complete circle at any angle of inclination less than its maximum. At the same time, if the weapon is being used in field operations it must be mounted upon a carriage of adequate mobility to enable it to follow the airship, and thereby keep pace with the latter, so that the aerial craft may be sorely harassed if not actually hit. The automobile is the obvious vehicle for this duty, and it has accordingly been extensively used in this service.
The automobile and the gun mounted thereon follow widely different lines. Some vehicles are designed especially for this duty, while others are improvisations, and be it noted, in passing, that many of the latter have proved more serviceable than the former. Still, the first-named is to be preferred, inasmuch as necessarily it is designed to meet the all-round requirements imposed, and consequently is better able to stand up to the intended work, whereas the extemporised vehicle is only serviceable under favourable conditions.
The Krupp Company has evolved many designs of anti-aircraft motor-driven guns—"Archibalds" the British airmen term them with emphatic levity. They are sturdily-built vehicles fitted with heavy motors, developing from 40 to 50 horse-power, with the chassis not widely dissimilar from that adopted for motor-omnibus traffic. Consequently, they are not necessarily condemned to the high-roads, but within certain limits are able to travel across country, i.e., upon fields or other level expanses, where the soil is not unduly soft.
But the very character of the problem rendered the evolution of the vehicle a somewhat perplexing matter. There were many factors which had to be taken into consideration, and it was possible to meet the imposed requirements only within certain limits. In the first place, the weight of the gun itself had to be kept down. It was obviously useless to overload the chassis. Again, the weight of the projectile and its velocity had to be borne in mind. A high velocity was imperative. Accordingly, an initial velocity varying from 2,200 to 2,700 feet per second, according to the calibre of the gun, was determined.
Moreover, as mobility was an indispensable condition, the gun had to be so mounted that it could be fired from the motor-car even if the latter were travelling at high speed. This requirement entailed another difficulty. The gun had to be mounted in such a manner as to enable the gunner to train it easily and readily through the complete circle and through its complete range of vertical inclination. As the result of prolonged experiments it was ascertained that the most suitable arrangement was a pedestal mounting, either within a turret or upon an open deck. To meet the weight of the gun, as well as the strains and stresses incidental to firing, the chassis was strengthened, especially over the rear axle near which the mounting is placed.
The heaviest gun of this type is the 10.5 centimetre (4 1/4-inch) quick-firer, throwing a shell weighing nearly forty pounds, with an initial velocity of 2,333 feet per second. This "Archibald" is totally unprotected. The gun is mounted centrally upon the carriage over the rear axle, and occupies the centre of the deck between the driver's seat and that of the gun crew behind. The whole of the deck is clear, thereby offering no obstruction to the gunner in training the weapon, while the space may be widened by dropping down the wings of the vehicle. At the rear is a seat to accommodate the gun crew, beneath which the ammunition is stowed. When travelling and out of action, the gun lies horizontally, the muzzle pointing from the rear of the car.
To reduce the strains arising from firing, the arm is fitted with what is known as the "differential recoil." Above the breach is an air recuperator and a piston, while there is no hydraulic brake such as is generally used. The compressor is kept under compression while the car is travelling with the gun out of action, so that the arm is available for instant firing. This is a departure from the general practice in connection with such weapons. When the gun is loaded the bolt which holds the compressor back is withdrawn, either by the hand for manual firing, or by the action of the automatic closing of the breech when the arm is being used as a quick-firer. In firing the gun is thrown forward under the pressure of the released air which occurs at the moment of discharge. The energy of the recoil brings the gun back and at the same time recharges the compressed air reservoir.
The gun is so mounted upon its pedestal as to enable a maximum vertical inclination of 75 degrees to be obtained. The mounting system also enables the weapon to be trained in any desired direction up to the foregoing maximum elevation throughout a complete circle, and it can be handled with ease and celerity. A smaller "Archibald" is the 7.5 centimetre (3-inch gun) throwing a 14.3 pound shell at an initial velocity of about 2,170 feet per second.
The turret anti-aircraft gun carried upon a motor-car differs from the foregoing very considerably. This is a protected arm. The gun of 7.1 centimetres—approximately 2.75 inches—is mounted in the same manner upon the car-deck and over the driving axle, but is enclosed within a sheet steel turret, which is proof against rifle and machine-gun fire. This turret resembles the conning-tower of a battleship, and is sufficiently spacious to house the whole of the gun crew, the internal diameter being about seven feet. Access to the turret is obtained through a rear door. This gun has a maximum elevation of about 75 degrees, while its operation and mechanism are similar to those of the unprotected weapon.
The vehicle itself is practically identical with the armoured motor-car, which has played such an important part during the present campaign, the driver being protected by a bullet-proof steel screen similar in design to the ordinary glass wind-screen fitted to touring automobiles. This is carried sufficiently high to offer complete protection to his head when seated at the wheel, while through a small orifice in this shield he is able to obtain a clear view of the road. The engine and its vital parts are also adequately protected. The ammunition is carried in a cupboard-like recess forming part of the driver's seat, encased in bullet-proof steel sheeting with flap-doors. This device enables the shells to be withdrawn readily from the side of the car and passed to the crew within the turret. The caisson is of sufficient dimensions to receive 69 shells.
The Ehrhardt airship fighting ordnance is similarly adapted to motor-car operations, one type being especially powerful. The whole of the vehicle is encased in armour-plating impervious to rifle and machine-gun fire. The driver is provided with a small orifice through which he is able to obtain a clear uninterrupted view of the road ahead, while the armouring over the tonneau is carried to a sufficient height to allow head-room to the gun crew when standing at the gun. All four wheels are of the disk type and fashioned from heavy sheet steel. The motor develops 40-50 horse-power and, in one type, in order to mitigate the risk of breakdown or disablement, all four wheels are driven. The gun, a small quick-firer, is mounted on a pedestal in a projecting conning-tower. The mounting is placed behind the driver's seat, and is trained and operated from the tonneau. The maximum elevation is 75 degrees, and like the gun carriage bearing the tube guide it can be moved through a complete circle, being free to rotate in the fixed pivot jack to enable this end to be attained.
The foregoing may be said to represent the most powerful types of mobile anti-aircraft weapons used by the Austro-German forces to-day. Arms of similar design, roughly speaking, have also been introduced into the French and Russian services. In addition many semi-armoured weapons of this character are in operation, some specially built for the work, while others have been improvised. In the semi-armoured motor-car the carriage follows the usual lines; it has an open top, the armouring comprising the body of the tonneau and the diskwheels, which are made of light bullet-proof steel. Here again the prevailing practice is to mount the gun as nearly above the rear axle as possible, and to work it from the tonneau. The maximum elevation is also 75 degrees, with training throughout the entire circle.
Another type comprises a very light machine gun of rifle calibre, and this is intended for attachment to an ordinary motor car. There is a pedestal mounting which can be set within the tonneau, while the weapon is pivoted in an outrigger, the latter being free to rotate in its pivot jack. This arrangement enables the arm to cover a wide range, while it also admits of training through an extensive angle of elevation.
The Allied forces improvised travelling anti-aircraft offences by mounting the latest types of Vickers, Hotchkiss, and other machine guns in armoured motor cars. Some of these have the domed turret form, with the gun projecting through the roof, while others are protected against hostile attack from the side only, the carriage being panelled with bullet-proof steel sheeting. While such weapons are useful, inasmuch as they can maintain a hot fire ranging up to 750 shots per minute, they are not to be compared with the "Archibalds," which are able to throw heavy shrapnel and incendiary shells, and have a vertical range of about 6,000 to 8,000 feet.
The improvised motor-gun has not proved a complete success, except in those instances when the hostile aircraft has ventured to approach somewhat closely to the ground. The more formidable weapons cannot be mounted upon ordinary vehicles, inasmuch as the increase in weight, which is appreciable, impairs the efficiency of the vehicle, and at the same time enhances the possibility of breakdown at a critical moment. For such arms a special and substantial chassis is imperative, while the motive power and gearing must be adapted to the circumstances.
Motor-mounted anti-aircraft weapons, however, have not proved an unqualified success. The fact that the vehicles are condemned to the high roads, or at least to comparatively smooth and level ground, constitutes a severe handicap. Again, when travelling at high speed, and this is essential when pursuing a fast aeroplane, the accurate laying of the weapon is extremely difficult, owing to the oscillation of the vehicle itself, especially if the road surface is in a bad condition. The sighting arrangements are of a wonderfully complete character, as described elsewhere, but the irregular rolling movement arising from high speed is a nullifying quantity. It is tolerably easy for the aircraft, especially an aeroplane, to evade successful pursuit, either by rising to an elevation beyond the range of the gun, or by carrying out baffling evolutions such as irregular undulating flight, wheeling, and climbing. According to the reports of the British and French airmen the "Archibald" has failed to establish the glowing reputation which was anticipated, for the simple reason that, unless it has a clear straight road and can maintain its high speed, it can easily be out-distanced by the fleet human bird.
The motor-car suffers from another serious disability. It cannot manoeuvre with sufficient celerity. For instance, if it is necessary to turn round in a narrow lane, valuable time is lost in the process, and this the airman turns to account. In hilly country it is at a still greater disadvantage, the inclines, gradients, and sinuosities of the roads restricting its effectiveness very pronouncedly. It must also be remembered that, relatively speaking, the "Archibald" offers a better target to the airman than the aeroplane offers to the man behind the anti-aircraft gun on the motor below. A few well-placed bombs are sufficient to induce the pursuers to cease their activities. Even if the missiles fail to strike the motor-car itself they can wreak disaster in directly by rendering the road impassable or dangerous to negotiate at high speed. On the whole therefore, the "Archibald" is a greatly exaggerated weapon of offence against aircraft, and, so far as is known, has failed to fulfil expectations. In fact, the Germans have practically abandoned the idea of using it in the manner of a pursuing arm; they work the weapon as a fixture, depending upon the car merely as a means of moving it from point to point. Thus, in reality, it has been converted into a light field-piece, and may almost be included in the category of fixed weapons for combating aerial operations.
CHAPTER XV. ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUNS. IMMOBILE WEAPONS
The immobile anti-aircraft gun, as distinct from that attached to a travelling carriage such as a motor-car, may be subdivided into two classes. The one is the fixed arm which cannot be moved readily, mounted upon a permanent emplacement; the other is the field-piece which, while fired from a stationary position, may be moved from point to point upon a suitable carriage. The distinction has its parallel in ordinary artillery, the first-named weapon coinciding with the heavy siege gun, which is built into and forms part and parcel of the defensive or offensive scheme, while the second is analogous to the field artillery, which may be wheeled from position to position.
In this phase of artillery the Germans led the way, for the simple reason that they recognised the military value of aerial navigation years in advance of their contemporaries. Again, in this field the Krupp Organisation has played a prominent part. It embarked upon actual construction of weapons while its rivals in other countries were content to prepare their drawings, which were filed against "The Day." But it must not be thought that because the German manufacturers of armaments were ahead of their contemporaries they dominated the situation. Far from it. Their competitors in the market of destruction were every whit as keen, as ingenious, and as enterprising. Kruppism saw a commercial opportunity to profit from advertisement and seized it: its rivals were content to work in secret upon paper, to keep pace with the trend of thought, and to perfect their organisations so as to be ready for the crisis when it developed.
The first Krupp anti-aircraft field-piece was a 6.5 centimetre (2 9/16 inch) arm. It possessed many interesting features, the most salient of which was the design of the axle of the carriage. The rigid axle for the two wheels was replaced by an axle made in two sections, and joined together in the form of a universal coupling, so that each wheel virtually possessed its own axle, or rather half-axle. This was connected with the cradle of the gun in such a manner that the wheels were laterally pivoted thereon.
The result is that each axle can be turned forward together with its wheel, and thus the wheels have their rims brought into line to form an arc of a circle, of which the rear end of the spade of the gun carriage constitutes the centre. This acts as a pivot, about which the gun can be turned, the pair of wheels forming the runners for the achievement of this movement. The setting of the weapon in the firing position or its reversion to the travelling position can be easily and speedily effected merely by the rotation of a handwheel and gearing.
With this gun a maximum elevation of 60 degrees is possible, owing to the trunnions being carried well behind the breech in combination with the system of long steady recoil. The balancing spring which encloses the elevating screw is contained in a protected box. The recoil brake, together with the spring recuperator, follows the usual Krupp practice in connection with ordinary field pieces, as does also the automatic breech-closing and firing mechanism. In fact there is no pronounced deviation from the prevailing Krupp system, and only such modifications as are necessary to adapt the arm to its special duty. When the gun is elevated to high angles the shell, after insertion the breech is prevented from slipping out by means of a special device, so that the proper and automatic closing of the breech is not impaired in any way.
In such an arm as this, which is designed essentially for high-angle firing, the sighting and training facilities require to be carried out upon special lines, inasmuch as the objective is necessarily at a considerable altitude above the horizon of the gun. In other words, in firing at a high inclination, distance between the gun and the target cannot be utilised directly for the back sight. On the other hand, it is essential that in proportion as the angle from the horizontal increases, the back sight should be lowered progressively in a manner corresponding to the distance.
To assist the range-finder in his task of sighting it is necessary that he should be provided with firing tables set out in a convenient form, which, in conjunction with the telemeter, serve to facilitate training for each successive round. In this way it is possible to pick up the range quickly and to keep the objective in the line of fire until it either has been put hors de combat, or has succeeded in retiring beyond the range of the gun.
The sighting arrangements of these Krupp anti-aircraft guns are carried out upon these lines. Beneath the barrel of the back-sight is an observing glass with an eye-piece for the artillerist, while above and behind the observing glass is another eye-piece, to be used in conjunction with the manipulation of the back-sight. The eye-piece of the observation glass is so made that it can be turned through a vertical plane in proportion as the angle of fire increases in relation to the horizontal. The determination of the distance from the objective and from the corresponding back-sight as well as the observation of the altitude is carried out with the aid of the telemeter. This again carries an observation glass fitted with an eye-piece which can be turned in the vertical plane in the same manner as that of the fore-sight. By means of this ingenious sighting device it is possible to ascertain the range and angle of fire very easily and speedily.
The weight of the special Krupp anti-aircraft field-piece, exclusive of the protecting shield, is approximately identical with that of the ordinary light artillery field-piece. It throws a shell weighing 8.8 pounds with an initial velocity of about 2,066 feet per second.
Although the German armament manufacturers were among the first to enter the field with an anti-aircraft gun of this character they were speedily followed by the French, who devised a superior weapon. In fact, the latter represented such a decisive advance that the German artillerists did not hesitate to appropriate their improvements in sundry essential details, and to incorporate them with their own weapons. This applies especially to the differential recoil system which is utilised in the small anti-aircraft guns now mounted upon the roofs of high buildings of cities throughout Germany for the express purpose of repelling aerial attack.
The French system is admitted by the leading artillery technicians of the world to be the finest which has ever been designed, its remarkable success being due to the fact that it takes advantage of the laws of Nature. In this system the gun is drawn back upon its cradle preparatory to firing. In some instances the barrel is compressed against a spring, but in the more modern guns it is forced to rest against a cushion of compressed air contained within a cylinder. When first bringing the gun into action, the barrel is brought into the preliminary position by manually compressing the air or spring by means of a lever. Thereafter the gun works automatically. When the gun is fired the barrel is released and it flies forward. At a critical point in its forward travel the charge is fired and the projectile speeds on its way. The kick or recoil serves to arrest the forward movement of the barrel and finally drives it back again against the strong spring or cushion of compressed air within the cylinder to its normal position, when it is ready for the introduction of the next shell.
The outstanding feature of this system is that the projectile is given a higher initial velocity than is possible with the barrel held rigid at the moment of discharge, because the shell is already travelling at the moment of firing.