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   Chapter 9 THE EYES OF BATTLE.

Kelly Miller's History of the World War for Human Rights By Kelly Miller Characters: 27511

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Aeroplanes and Airships-They Spy the Movements of Forces on Land or Sea-Lead Disastrous Bomb Attacks-Valuable in "Spotting" Submarines-The Bombardment at Messines Ridge.

Just as the submarine has revolutionized warfare on the seas and presented new problems for the naval experts to solve, so the aircraft of the last decade has had its effect upon the operation of land forces. Probably the aeroplane and the dirigible balloon have had a greater influence on the conduct of battles and military campaigns as a whole than any other device utilized in connection with the war.

It is significant, too, that just as America produced the first submarine, and then failed as a nation to develop it to its highest state of efficiency for military use, so American inventors were pioneers in the construction and successful operation of aeroplanes, or airplanes, which were first developed to their greatest efficiency and utility by the French and Germans.

Some of the most striking events of the war centre around the use of the airplanes or dirigibles, and aside from the picturesqueness and thrilling atmosphere that seem to surround their use, the operator of the aircraft has proved himself one of the most valuable servants in modern warfare. He has reduced the proudest cavalry to second place in the matter of reconnoissance, and has rendered services which have heretofore been impossible.

The airman sails out over the lines of battle, so far above the earth when necessary as to be out of range of the most powerful guns, and with glasses looks down upon the whole country. His machine, whether it be a dirigible balloon or airplane, is equipped with a wireless telegraph instrument with which he is able to send brief messages back to his own line or military headquarters. He can and does mark the changed positions of the contending forces, note the entrenchments and reinforcements, follow movements, and last but not least, as was noticeable in one of the desperate attacks upon the German position in June, 1917, swoop down upon the enemy, attack the lines and forces with bombs, and rain bullets upon them from rapid-fire guns.

No longer can the enemy mask its heavy batteries or conceal them beneath earthen mounds, plant them in corners of the forests or in clumps of bushes without their being located. The "eyes of the sky," as the planes are now termed, can spy them out. And when the airman has communicated to his military commanders the positions of the opposing batteries, he acts as a director in instructing the friendly gunners in finding the range and cleaning out the enemy.


The air scout can detect the enemy's lines of communication and raid it with bomb attacks. Even when the land forces cannot reach the enemy with gunfire he can rain missiles of all sorts upon them. Sometimes the airman flies over the enemy lines and drops glittering tinsel or bright metal devices, which falling to the ground serve as marks for the artillerymen in finding the range.

Where the cavalry scout or creeping scout of days gone by could never have proved successful, the airman has easily accomplished his purpose. He has carried messages from one frontier to another in hours, when it would have taken days for a scout on horseback or on foot to have rendered the service, if they could have accomplished it at all. He has eliminated distance.

Trench warfare developed in the world-war in a way that has never before been deemed necessary or possible, but the miles of trenches which conceal the men from the fire of the enemy are plainly visible to the airmen. And armed with cameras having powerful telescopic lenses they can photograph the entire scene and send to their own military headquarters not mere indicated plans of the battle lines, but exact photographs.

The war has shown conclusively that once the formation of the battle line has been decided upon it is, in a measure, a fixture. It may be subject to rearrangement, but this is when the force of battle demands, or for strategic purposes, but such an arrangement requires a great deal of time and much work. The battle fronts on the borders of France and Belgium have ranged from 100 to nearly 300 miles in length, with nearly 3,000,000 strung out in opposing lines along the entire distance.


The ground has been dug up and trenched until the surface of the earth looks like an immense gridiron. The soldiers almost live within the trenches and dugouts beneath the ground. Telephone and telegraph wires run through the trenches and even railroad tracks are laid so that small engines go whirring through the ditches like "dinky" locomotives in a coal mine.

And the "eyes in the skies" make it possible for the commanders to know each other's strength and the disposition of the forces at all times.

Particularly has the air scout proved valuable in enabling commanders to execute their final orders without grievous error. There is danger of possible misjudgment because of the great length of the firing lines. The airmen verify positions and make last minute reports, taking minutes to perform services that cavalry forces or other scouting parties would have taken hours or days to render.

Operated in conjunction with cavalry scouts, and motor and cycle squads, the airplane is a destruction-directing and defensive force. And it was the large fleet of aircraft that aided Germany in making such rapid advance in its drive toward Paris in the early days of the war. The scouts reconnoitering in the early dawn were able to report the situation and give the commanders time to move their forces before the Belgians and French were aware of what was being done.

Germany had probably the largest fleet of airplanes at the beginning of the conflict and is said to have possessed upward of 500, of various sorts, and this does not include the famous Zeppelins or dirigible balloons. She also had something like two dozen factories which could turn out flying machines, and had been at work on the development of her aircraft long enough to have her patterns and methods of manufacture somewhat, if not entirely standardized. During the third year of the war it was estimated that she had more than quadrupled her force of flying machines.


Germany's preparedness in this as well as in other directions was what enabled her to obtain such a tremendous advantage in the beginning of the war. Later England and France concentrated on the development of aeroplane squads or corps, and when the United States entered the war one of the first detachments sent into France consisted of 100 aviators. How rapidly the aeroplane forces were developed is indicated by the statement made in the beginning of 1916 that the air forces of the Allies were represented by 3380 aeroplanes of various types and 64 dirigible balloons, while Austria and Germany had 2000 aeroplanes and 70 dirigibles.

The dirigibles-the type of airship commonly referred to as Zeppelins-have the advantage over the heavier-than-air machines of being almost silent in their operations, while at the same time they can remain for a longer time suspended in air over a camp or battleground without being detected. The Zeppelin is the development of the old balloon, made, however, in a conical shape with a long basket or car attached. They are driven by propellers similar to those used with aeroplanes, but as the power generated by the engines is merely used to drive the machines and has nothing to do with maintaining their position in the air, the motors do not have to be so powerful. They are steered by rudders.

Some of the largest Zeppelins which have been leading factors in night raids conducted by the Germans on London and English coast resorts are capable of maintaining a speed of 60 miles an hour. One of these immense Zeppelins was reported to have covered 1300 miles in less than forty hours, covering the German borders, and still keeping in touch with its base. The Zeppelins, because of their large size, can carry large quantities of bombs, wireless apparatus, signals and electric searchlights. They can rise to a height that places them fairly beyond the range of the aerial guns used for fighting the air forces of the army.


The bombs used are as diversified as the crafts on which they are carried. The French aviators at one time dropped long steel billets or arrows which had swedged heads and sharpened points. These missiles, dropped from the height of a thousand feet or more, attained a velocity and force which made them dangerous weapons of the minor sort.

The bombs, in the main, however, consist of jacketed shells containing high explosives, some of which are constructed on what is called the delayed-action principle. Such bombs explode after penetrating the fort or object which they strike, instead of going off by contact. Germany is said to have developed some of these that were of such size and power as to penetrate an armored ship. As much as 50 pounds of explosives or chemicals is declared to have been carried in some of the larger ones.

The big dirigibles mount machine guns of superior range. Some of them have been armored to an extent, and to make them less easily detected they have been painted tints and colors to harmonize with the clouds and sky. Special kinds of gas have been used to fill the envelopes or bags, and instead of one large bag they consist of a series of bags enclosed in an envelope or casing, so that if a bullet would penetrate the envelope it would only destroy one of the gas bags, and not cause the whole thing to collapse.

Besides having proved of great value in the land campaigns, the aircraft has shown itself to be one of the most effective devices of warfare for use against the submarine, and all manner of naval craft. From the heavens they can see the submarine under the water, and as either the dirigible or the aeroplane can develop a speed greater than that of any battleship or cruiser, it is not difficult for it to soar over the vessel and drop bombs upon it. Even gas bombs have been used in the raids by the aircraft.


The difficulty in the use of bombs has been in accurately directing the death-dealing devices when the airship or aeroplane is in motion. To assist in this work aerial range finders have been devised. These are constructed on the principle of the finder on a camera, with graded scale markings to indicate the allowance that must be made for speed and motion. Complete apparatus has been built up for launching the projectiles from the large dirigibles, and to insure the missiles traveling properly vanes have been attached to some of them.

In a test made under the auspices of the French Government and the Aerial Club of France, a few years ago, one of the bomb-launching machines on an aeroplane scored eleven bull's-eye shots in a target ten yards in diameter, from an altitude of more than 2000 feet, while the aeroplane was going at a speed of more than 65 miles an hour.

Though there has not been any widespread use of the plan the air has been "mined" in an experimental way to protect certain sections against night raids by the airmen. Mining the air consists of locating small balloons over an area, each balloon being attached to the other with wires. The small balloons have attached to them explosive bombs which would destroy the larger aircraft if it was to run into this nest of air vessels in the dark.

Reverting to the use of aircraft in naval warfare it may be said that to the aeroplane the relatively fast fleet is virtually stationary. About the only case parallel to the aeroplane looking over the hill and down on concealed enemy positions would be in rising above the smoke screen thrown out by destroyers.


The smoke screen, by the way, which has been used by the British with marked success in many instances, is an American invention. The low, swift craft are equipped with special oil burners which throw off dense volumes of heavy smoke, which float low over the surface of the water, concealing the maneuvers of the larger boats and protecting them from the skill of enemy gunners. Its effectiveness, of course, is influenced by the direction and strength of the wind. Used generously by small craft convoying a ship through a submarine area, it should be of great value.

A battleship can see about as far as it can shoot, anyhow. Except for smoke screen, or the famous "low visibility," which means foggy weather or darkness, no enemy within range can be concealed.

What the fleet commander wants to know is how those enemy vessels beyond the horizon, which may be within range of his guns tomorrow, the day after, or next week, may be distributed, and how many of them there are. This is where the speed of the airplane comes in.

A machine which can travel 100 miles an hour covers a thousand miles in 10 hours. Locating an approaching enemy fleet this distance away, it brings back the news of the approach in 10 hours. It takes the fleet, traveling at 15 miles an hour, two days and 18 hours to cover this distance. The aeroplane can beat it by two days and eight hours.

But the aeroplane flying high enough to give it the widest practical range of vision is able to see only over a path 75 miles wide under the most favorable weather conditions. Haze will cut this down considerably. This means that for anything like complete scouting work a fleet must be equipped with a large number of them.


Then, too, there must be a generous proportion of fighting planes to spread

out in a very wide circle beyond the fleet. It will be appreciated that this circle must be a mighty wide one if the enemy planes be kept far enough away to prevent their counting the number and type of ships in the command. There is required also a large detail to guard against the submarines. While an aeroplane can see quite deep in the sea, this penetrating vision is limited to the water directly beneath it. It can see straight down in the water, but not off to the side at an angle.

If such a thing is possible, air control at sea is more important than over the land, and of first value is the fighting plane. In this connection there is an aeroplane gun which works well. It is a double-ender. That is, there is a breech in the middle, and the two ends are muzzles. In air fighting it is seconds and fractions of seconds that count, and the advantage of this gun lies in that it can be fired in opposite directions, thus cutting down the length of the arc through which it has to be swung to be brought to bear on the enemy.

Of exceptional value to the United States navy is the super-American type of planes which the Curtiss factories have developed and which have done such wonderful service for the British. In this type the fuselage is entirely enclosed, built with a hull much along the lines of the motorboat or hydroplane. The 'plane may thus come to rest safely in the open sea.

It weighs nearly 6000 pounds and can carry a useful load of more than 2000 pounds. The boat is slung well below the planes, eight feet below the lower one, which has a span of 66 feet. Eight feet above this is the upper plane, which overlaps the lower plane by 13 feet on each side. The complete span of the upper plane is 92 feet. It can carry six to eight men, if necessary, altogether a huge, sturdy, dependable machine with two powerful motors.

And what was done to give America the equipment of 'planes which we needed?


Fifteen aeroplane manufacturers, with a combined capital of $30,000,000 and a total capacity of 175 machines a week, organized and placed all their resources at the command of the government. The organization provided for the interchange of ideas and plans and for the standardization of manufacture, which resulted in a material increase in output.

One hundred and seventy-five machines a week should give us, in a year, 9100. And there are other conditions which may modify the estimate both favorably and unfavorably. There is, for instance, a limit to the amount of seasoned lumber available in this country of the peculiar type and quality needed for airplane construction. Provision must be made for the future in this respect. All-steel machines have been made and used in Europe to some extent, but no metal alloy has been developed which is likely to take the place of wood in general construction. The manufacturers developed some interesting things along these lines which were not given to the public.

In the Spring of 1917 the fighting in the air took on an entirely new interest abroad, because of the German policy of painting their machines most grotesque patterns. They seemed to have taken this idea from the old American Indian custom of painting their faces to frighten their opponents, or else the fancies of the German airmen were allowed to run riot with vivid color effects.

British pilots daily brought home from over the lines new reports of fantastic creations encountered amid the clouds. The gayest feathered songsters that came north with the Spring did not rival the variegated hues of the harlequin birds that rose daily from the German airdromes. The coming of this fantastic order of things in the air was first heralded by a squadron of scarlet German planes. It then was noticed that some of the enemy machines were striped about the body like yellowjackets.


Nothing appeared too gaudy to meet the tastes of the enemy airmen, who seemed to have been given carte blanche with the paint brush. There were green planes with yellow noses, silver planes with gold noses, khaki-colored planes with greenish-gray wings, planes with red bodies, green wings and yellow stripes, planes with red bodies and wings of green on top of blue, planes with light blue bodies and red wings. Virtually all the gaudiest machines were in red body effects, with every possible combination of colors for their wings. Some had one green wing and one white; some had green wings tipped with various colors.

One of the most fantastic met had a scarlet body, brown tail and reddish-brown wings, with white maltese crosses against a bright green background. One machine looked like a pear flying through the air. It had a pear-shaped tail and was painted a ruddy brown, just like a large ripe fruit. One of the piebald squadrons encountered was made up of white, red and green machines. There still were others palpably painted for what became known as "camouflage" purposes, as guns, wagons and tents often are painted to blend with the landscape and thus avoid detection.

This lavish use of paint, however, did not reduce the heavy daily loss inflicted on the Germans by the British flyers. But it must not be imagined that the Germans did not put up a stalwart fight. Just as their resistance was strengthened on land, so it was increased in the air. Just as the Germans threw in new divisions of infantry and new batteries of artillery to check the Allies' offensive, so they sent aloft hundreds of new machines to contest for the mastery of the air, an important phase of modern war.

The manner in which the British flying corps dominated the air during the battle of Messines Ridge in June, 1917, and completely smothered the German aviation service for the time being is one of the most thrilling and remarkable stories of the entire war.

Hundreds of British planes were well behind the German lines when the battle broke into its fury at dawn. They had stolen over during the darker intervals of the brief night when the moon was hidden by storm clouds. Other hundreds went aloft with the first faint streaks of coming day and, guided by the flashes of the guns, flew into the thick of the fighting.


During the night British machines combed enemy railway stations, trains, ammunition dumps and troops coming up on the march. Others hovered above German airdromes and circled low among airplane sheds and fired hundreds of rounds from machine guns into them and prevented the enemy machines from coming out. Later in the day, while the fighting was most intense, British airmen dropped about three tons of bombs on the German flying grounds as a further deterrent, which proved highly effective.

In addition to shutting the German airmen out of any early participation in the battle, the British airplanes were in a large degree responsible for the fact that the Germans could not launch a counter-attack of appreciable strength until forty hours after the battle for the ridge began and every bit of ground desired by the British in this particular operation had been taken and secured.

Far back of the German lines the British planes searched out troops in every hamlet, town and village. In several places they saw them gathering or marching in the main streets, whereupon they flew down low at times and opened a fire which scattered the gray-clad soldiers in all directions. All pilots report that their accurate fire had a most demoralizing effect upon the hostile troops. Convoys and ammunition and supply columns were attacked while on the march and the disorganized men left their teams and automobiles on the roads while they sought shelter in nearby ditches.


Airplanes attacked troops in the support trenches and sent them scurrying to the cover of their dugouts. One pilot made so many of these attacks that he finally ran out of ammunition, but he delivered his last stroke by letting go his signal rockets at a platoon of soldiers who, evidently mistaking this for some particularly horrible new style of war frightfulness, fled in all directions.

German troops were fired upon in the more distant back areas as they were entraining for the front. Many of the enemy retreating from the British attack and hiding in shell holes were seen by the low-flying airmen and pelted with bullets.

One British pilot patrolled a road for half an hour before he saw anything to shoot at. Then a German military automobile with three officers sitting in the back seat came along. The Britisher dived at them from a height of three hundred feet, firing at them as they came. He flew so low eventually that the wheels of his under carriage barely missed the automobile, which swerved into a ditch while going at about forty miles an hour and crashed into a tree.

This same pilot later came across an active field gun battery and charged it, scattering the gun crew and hitting a number of them. Still further along he attacked a column of Germans marching in fours. The column broke when he opened fire, scattering to both sides of the road. At no time during his stay inside the German lines was this pilot more than 500 feet from the ground.


Large numbers of British machines were on contact patrol work, flying low over the advancing lines of infantry, constantly watching their movements, their progress, any temporary reverse, any attempt to form counter-attacks and all the while sending detailed reports back to corps and army headquarters.

Of the fourteen planes lost during the day of the battle, a majority were those contact machines. They had to fly through a frightful storm of their own as well as the enemy's artillery fire, and they succumbed to chance blows from these exploding missiles.

Late on the day of the battle, when the enemy machines had finally arrived from more distant airdromes, there was some good fighting in the air, some of it at close quarters with collisions barely avoided. Twenty enemy machines were accounted for in the fighting, some flopping about until they broke up in the air and others being driven down on their noses in yellow buttercup fields so far back of the fighting line that no shell had ever marred the symmetry of the landscape.

Some of the most marvelous work was done by artillery airships. One squadron of these alone, acting with several batteries of British heavies, succeeded in silencing seventy-two German batteries before six o'clock on the morning of the attack which began at 3.10 o'clock in the morning. These planes also directed the firing on the enemy's guns en route to the front, some of the big weapons being drawn by caterpillar tractors. Wherever a thousand or more troops were observed forming for possible counter-attacks the artillery planes directed "shoots" upon them.

So complete was the British domination of the air along the front of attack that not a single one of the British artillery observing aeroplanes was lost during the week that the intense bombardment was going on. During the battle British aeroplanes also attacked and silenced a number of enemy machine-gun positions.

The growth of the aeroplane industry has developed as many makes of machines as there are makes of automobiles, but in a general way aeroplanes are divided into four classes-monoplanes, biplanes, triplanes and hydroplanes. About 90 per cent of all designs are monoplanes and biplanes, and the types are distinguished by their single set of wings or planes or the double planes or wings. Both types have their advantages in use, the biplane being regarded as more stable for certain scouting purposes than the monoplane. It can carry heavier weights-has greater lifting power-but is not capable of as great speed or as easily maneuvered.


The War has placed the machine on an intensely practical basis. The manufacturers have learned that machines constructed along certain lines will travel at such and such a speed and have a certain lifting capacity, will rise under a particular speed and may be expected to do certain things under certain circumstances, but with all the advance which has been made in the construction of the air machines, the designers do not yet understand all the "factors" that enter into the "why" of the case.

The makers have, however, succeeded in standardizing their machines to a degree. The story of how the aeroplane flies is a highly technical and scientific one, but the basic principle is the reaction of air and an inclined surface in motion. It might be likened to a stone skipping across the surface of a pond, if the imagination can conceive of the water as being air. It is simplicity itself to drive an inclined plane against the air with such force that the impact will produce a lifting power. In raising an ordinary kite, for instance, the boy runs into the teeth of the wind. His kite is so attached to a string as to stand at an angle, and as he runs the pressure against the air drives the kite upward. In the aeroplane the propellers drive the machine into the air with such force that the planes, standing at an angle, guide the machine upward.

There are innumerable problems to be solved-those of buoyancy, delicacy of balance and many others-but the designers themselves have not been able to determine upon a precise formula for their solution. It is sufficient that the aeroplane has reached a degree of practicability in construction and use which insures its permanent existence, and has given the military and the naval forces one of the greatest agencies in the world for protecting themselves and watching their enemies.

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