The War in the Skies

The vital and new development of aircraft was motivated by the demands of modern warfare. At first aircraft were used for reconnaissance missions, in which the pilot or his observer would feed information back about the movements of German troops; help direct artillery strikes; or take photographs showing enemy positions and gun batteries. As time went on, aircraft became more of a weapon, as more powerful engines allowed then to be fitted with guns and bombs.


© IWM ART 3077. the first zeppelin to be brought down by allied aircraft.

© IWM ART 3077. the first zeppelin to be brought down by allied aircraft.

At the beginning of the First World War, German had 10 Zeppelins and three smaller airships. However a problem with them quickly became apparent, they were extremely explosive! The German Army stopped airship operations as losses became to frequent early in the war. However the German navy began night bombing offensives, the first aerial strategic bombardment campaign in history.

Airships were large targets so it was common for them to be shot down, for this reason the First World Was was the last time airships were used a combat aircraft. Throughout the war they were mostly used for anti-submarine patrols, convoy escort and protection, and coastal reconnaissance.

Observation Aircraft

Balloons: Observation balloons were particularly  useful along the Western Front. Above the trenches and anchored to the ground, the balloons were able to see what was beyond the enemy’s front line, including being able to locate their artillery. Often an observer would be alone in the balloon, collecting information about the enemy side and passing it to the ground by telephone. This was a dangerous job, as they were a huge, stationary target. Some men took pride in shooting down these balloons , getting reputations as ‘balloon busters’, for example Willy Coppens brought down 35 balloons, the highest single total of the war.

Reconnaissance Aircraft:
Due to the aircraft’s small engines, they could often only support a pilot and occasionally an observer. At the Battle of the Marne information the British and French armies received from aircraft allowed them to successfully counterattack the Germans, who were forced to retreat. Aircraft continued to develop throughout the war, with more powerful engines meaning the planes could fly higher and avoid interception! For example, in 1917 the Germans created a plane that could operate as high as 7, 300 metres.

Fighter Planes

Observation planes presented a huge problem Neither side wanted the other to know where their artillery was so they could keep it safe from shelling! In the early years pilots and observers would fire at enemy place with pistols, rifles and shotguns. But this was fairly unsuccessful.

© IWM ART 3071. george horace davis, closing up. he was a landscape painter who served in the Raf.

© IWM ART 3071. george horace davis, closing up. he was a landscape painter who served in the Raf.

By 1913, Fighter planes began to be fitted with machine guns, which was often fired by an observer who would have sat ahead of the pilot. Aerial warfare became deadlier in July 1915 when Dutch aircraft designer Anton Fokker, developed a timing machine that synchronised that machine gun with the propeller, allowing bullets to fly between the turning blades.

Both sides developed fighter aircraft intended to shoot down the enemy’s planes, such as the German Fokkers and British Sopwith Camel. They also developed aircraft capable of carrying bombs which would be dropped on enemy targets.
Pilot’s speech bubble: My plane had an open cockpit so it was extremely cold!. I had to wear warm clothing, like my sheepskin jacket.

Britain had two forces in the air-The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) run by the Army and the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS) created by the Navy. In April 1918 the two air forces were combined into one, they Royal Air Force (RAF).

Royal Flying Corps

© IWM bags of grain being dropped over kut by british airplanes.

The Royal Flying Corps was created in 1912 and they played an important role in the First World War. The RFC were busy observing the enemy from the start of the War after the beginning of trench warfare began taking the first of millions of aerial photographs of enemy positions.

 In 1916 South Asian and British soldiers were sent to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) to try and lift the Siege of Kut. This was unsuccessful, and caused over 23,000 deaths. Lack of food was the most serious problem for those trapped in the city, who suffered scurvy and other diseases. Food and medicine drops by the Royal Flying Corps were arranged, possibly for the first time in history. But the British planes had to contend with German and Turkish planes defending the siege. Between 15th and 29th April, 19,000 pounds of supplies were dropped in 140 flights.

Sadly, despite all their efforts, the situation was still desperate and the Allies had to surrender on the 29th April 1916.

Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS)

The Navy’s air force was active at sea and on land from the outset of the war. At sea the RNAS made great strides operating seaplanes, with floats to land on the water. Naval versions of land planes, which could not land on water, could fly back to an airfield or ‘ditch’ in the sea next to a rescue ship. Above land the Navy’s air force was used against the Zeppelins, German airships.
By the time the Royal Air Force (RAF) was created in April 1918, the RNAS had already undertaken a strategic bombing campaign against munitions factories and steelworks. Later the RAF also attacked German industry and communications and by the end of the War it was using twin-engined Handley Page bombers capable of carrying nearly a ton of bombs.

Creation of the RAF

A problem was appearing with having two air services (RFC and RNAS); there was constant competition between them for engines and aircrafts. Something needed to be done and an idea of uniting the two was discussed in 1916. Some felt this would be impossible. Prime Minister David Lloyd George turned to General Jan Smuts to solve these problems, and fast.

Smuts suggested an Air Ministry and Air Staff to combine the RFC and the RNAS into a new Air Service that would be independent of the Army and the Navy. However, many believed unifying would be far too difficult during the war and others believed that the air services should be supporting land operations and did not have the experience to be independent.

The worries were not enough to dissuade Smuts, and the Royal Air force (RAF) was born in April 1918. 



General Smuts fought against the British in the Second Boer War but later became a vital British military person. In fact he was the only person to sign both treaties from the First and Second World War. 

Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF)

© IWM Art 5103. fairlie harmar harberton - wraf’s drilling at andover aerodrome - a group of women’s royal air force personnel engaged in military drill on the tarmac.

The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC, see page 18) worked on different air stations which belonged to the RFC and RNAS. When they merged to create the RAF it seemed necessary to make a new women’s force, and so the WRAF was formed on 1st April 1918.  In total, 32,000 women joined the WRAF.

These women were given the choice to transfer and over 9,000 did. Initially this growing unit worked in Britain but as the war went on they were needed elsewhere, moving to France and Germany in 1919.

By 1920 there were over 50 trades the WRAF offered, from pigeon keeping to driving. Although this unit was a vital asset to the RAF they were still only a wartime force and in 1920 it was disbanded.