William Alexander Robson.

Aircraft in war and peace online

. (page 4 of 9)
Online LibraryWilliam Alexander RobsonAircraft in war and peace → online text (page 4 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

aimed at. This method could be plausibly employed, no matter
where the bombs were dropped, because, after all, every spot in the
British Isles is at present near something of military value. In
fact, all that the interview with Commander Mathy showed was
the German Government's sudden and futile desire to attempt to
disprove that the Zeppelins drop bombs at random without military
object, and heedless of civilian lives, in exactly the same way that
it tried to mitigate the crimes of the German submarines by equally
unconvincing methods.


unsuccessful in doing even that small percentage
of military damage. The record of their raids
has been a series of murders of non-combatants 1
of all sorts, from old women to hens !

Why, then, do they continue to come ?
There are two reasons for their persistence, one of
which deals with the psychology of the German
nation. Germany considers Great Britain to be
her worst enemy, the source of all her troubles, and
the foe from which most is to be feared. Nothing
could aggravate and kindle such a feeling more
than the realisation that, no matter how deeply
involved we might be in the War, even to our
last penny and our last man, the actual in-
habitants and the territory of the United King-
dom, even of the whole British Empire itself, is,
thanks to our Navy, almost certainly safe from
invasion and the horrors and barbarities which
the Germans would probably rather inflict on
us than on any nation.

There was one method of escape from the
attitude of utter impotency in which they stood
in regard to us : by way of the air. And this
road they took. As they have shown con-

1 Since this was written fourteen soldiers have been killed in a
Zeppelin raid. Does this alter the actual object of the raids or
change their record ?


sistently throughout the campaign, the Germans
draw no distinction between civilians and
soldiers, combatants and non-combatants, for,
according to their code, the subject of an enemy
is an enemy under every circumstance. Was it
likely, therefore, that the behaviour of the
German Government in matters of the air should
differ from their policy on land and sea, especi-
ally when there was, in the case of air raids on
England, the additional incentive of being able
to give vent to that consuming hatred which the
German public feels toward the British people ?

These air raids from Germany, although
utterly futile, have probably done us good by
rousing the country and by stimulating recruit-
ing, and are very significant for at least two
reasons. For they demonstrate how a country
like Great Britain, which is otherwise reasonably
secure in war time, could in the future be
attacked and beaten, unless it possessed a really
strong air fleet. And the German raids, in-
human as we think they are, do certainly indicate
that the ethics of warfare will undoubtedly alter
with the development of the " fifth arm " on the
huge scale which it will assume.

This book does not pretend to deal with any


questions as to the morality of methods of war,
but still it is necessary to point out the great
changes which aircraft must inevitably introduce
in this respect.

For it must be borne in mind that, when an
aviator is not able to descend low in order
to drop bombs on military objects in a town,
buildings of a quite harmless character will be
struck accidentally ; also, that often inoffensive
edifices may be easily mistaken from above for
military works, the destruction of which has
been ordered, and thus they may be deliber-
ately if inadvertently destroyed. It can be
seen, therefore, that aviators must not always
be charged with inhumanity on the superficial
evidence of apparently brutal acts which they
may accidentally perform ; deeper investigation
is necessary.

Another important consideration also arises
out of the question as to what may or may not
be regarded as legitimate prey for air raiders.
Precedent must not be relied upon in this
matter ; one set of customs cannot be made to
fit circumstances quite other than those from
which they have been evolved. Thus, to-day it
might be considered as inhuman to destroy from



the air factories situated in towns perhaps
hundreds of miles from a theatre of war manu-
facturing textiles for soldiers' clothing, and
employing hundreds of women, who might be
killed in a raid. Dropping bombs on such a
place is only condemned at present because the
idea is new to us, because we are not used to it.
If, in the past, nations had been able to put out
of action every single person and every single
instrument engaged in supplying the enemy
troops with food, clothing, ammunition, rifles,
guns, ships, coal, field-glasses, and the thousand
and one material things on the largest supply
of which victory may be said to depend, they
certainly would have put them out of action.
So we must not be led into the easy illusion of
thinking that this was not done for the sake of
humanity. After all, an enormous percentage
of the population, even of industrial Britain,
is employed on Government work of some de-
scription ; and, as it is urged on the nation day
by day, the result of the War depends as much
on those at home as on those at the Front. So it
would seem inevitable that all these war workers
should, with the advent of aircraft, come under
similar conditions of danger to the soldier himself.


But, even allowing for these considerations,
there is certainly no defence to be extracted
from them for the German policy in regard to
air raids, and stress has been laid on them for
that very reason. Presuming that, with the
use of aircraft in war, a greatly increased pro-
portion of the territory and inhabitants of a
belligerent country may perhaps come to be
regarded as being within the legitimate sphere
of hostilities, even that cannot justify the
absolutely random bombardment of a whole
country by aircraft. If the German raiding
operations had been conducted by day-time,
with exactly the same results, fairly convincing
excuses might possibly have been made for
them. But the method of creeping over in
the dark is an overwhelming proof of the
Germans' intention to attempt a paltry
vengeance without thought of military signi-
ficance. Is it possible that it was seriously
hoped to intimidate the British nation by this
means ?

Nevertheless, no matter how severely the
German air raids may be condemned, nor how
void they be of military importance, the fact
remains that it is very difficult for us to repel


the raiders at night, though we could effectively
do so during the day-time.

The difficulty of locating aircraft in the dark
is extreme. The Zeppelins are generally dis-
cerned travelling at an altitude of about 3000
to 6000 feet, when the aeroplanes which then
attempt to pursue them are probably still on
the ground, perhaps several miles away ; merely
to climb to an equal height, even supposing the
airship would remain still which it very em-
phatically will not would take the aeroplane
about ten minutes to a quarter of an hour. By
the time that the aeroplane pilot is at about
the same height as the airship was when it was
first seen, both he and it are naturally in quite
different relative positions to those from which
they started and probably much farther apart, in
distance if not in height.

How is the aeroplane pilot to locate the
airship ? Sound does not help him, for the noise
of his own engine prevents him from hearing
anything else. Sight is of very little use to him,
for he can only see the object of his search if he
can get reasonably close to it. The one thing
for him to do is to search carefully in the most
likely directions. And he has to examine a


certain area at not only one possible level, as
on the earth or on the sea (except in the case
of submarines, with which a similar difficulty of
location ordinarily occurs), but he must search
an absolutely indefinite area at several different
altitudes ; for it is quite possible that at 5000
feet, he might pass underneath the Zeppelin
flying at 6000 feet, and know nothing at all
about having been anywhere near it, especially
if it is drifting down wind with stopped engines.

In addition, there is great difficulty attached
to night-flying itself, quite apart from airship-
chasing. As the pilot cannot see the angle which
his machine bears in relation to the earth, and
thus ascertain whether he is maintaining his
lateral stability when, for instance, he is bank-
ing for a turn, he must exert every nerve to
" sense " it a very exhausting process. Also,
very great skill and experience are required to
land safely at night, even on a good aerodrome ;
should the pilot be forced to make an involuntary
landing on bad ground, often it is hardly possible
for him not to smash at least the landing chassis
of his aeroplane, or perhaps the entire machine.

It can therefore be seen that although hostile
airships cannot distinguish in the dark, objects


or places on the ground to a sufficient extent
for them to be really dangerous, they are, on
the other hand, fairly immune from being
brought down by aeroplanes. Nevertheless,
there is certainly the chance of our aviators
being lucky enough to find a Zeppelin easily,
and this chance is appreciably greater than
is the raiders' chance of their bombs striking
anything of military importance. A really
well -synchronised combination of anti-aircraft
guns and searchlights is probably the most
certain method of repelling Zeppelin attacks
at night-time (in the day-time aeroplanes are,
of course, infinitely better), as we can see from
the immunity which Paris now enjoys, and
which is solely due to the rings of searchlights
and guns that encircle her. It is not practical to
employ both guns and aeroplanes, owing to the
obvious danger of hitting friendly aircraft. Paris
has shown how successful an adequate system
of lights and guns can be, used in conjunction
with properly controlled town-lighting, and it
is common knowledge that Sir Percy Scott
adopted a somewhat similar form of aerial
defence for London.

Before passing from the subject of German


air raids on England, there is one consideration
which should be recalled in connection with the
destruction of a Zeppelin by the late Flight-Sub-
Lieut. Warneford, V.C. It will be remembered
that this act was performed in Belgium, and
it certainly revealed the feasibility of another
way of dealing with Zeppelins bound for
England. If, owing to technical difficulties, it
is enormously difficult for aeroplanes to repel
the marauders effectively while they are actually
over England, it does not follow that British
aviators cannot encounter them on the Continent
either on their way over or on the return
journey whichever is most favourable as re-
gards light and weather and attack them then.
In reviewing in toto the raids which aero-
planes have accomplished during the War and
British and French machines have been by far
the most active and successful in this direction
one obvious conclusion is reached : that, to
achieve substantial military results, flights of
aeroplanes must concentrate on prearranged
objects, and that each raiding pilot must possess
considerable personal talent and nerve. It is
only occasionally, or when the object to be
destroyed is comparatively small, that the bombs


carried by one or two airmen would be sufficient,
except in the case of an airship in its shed,
where something of a highly inflammable nature
can be ignited. But, on the other hand, the
smaller the object the harder it would be to hit,
so a greater number of pilots and machines
might be needed.

In the beginning of this chapter reference
was made to the fundamental difference between
aircraft and all other weapons. The aeroplane
has, as a weapon, more than once been compared
to a gun with an enormously increased range.
This parallel is somewhat erroneous, for aero-
planes, unlike guns, transport a human being
two eyes and a brain as well as a mere mass of
metal. In fact, in this simple attribute lies the
whole essence of the indispensability of aircraft
in modern war. In the future we shall better
realise the potency of this man-carrying cap-
ability of the aeroplane. When aeroplanes are
really plentiful, a force of thousands of men can
be landed in an unprotected part of an enemy's
country. Probably part of this contingent of
aeroplanes would serve for repelling an attack ;
part for carrying fuel, food, ammunition ; and
part for transporting men. True, such opera-


tions would always require very fine organisation,
and huge landing - grounds would have to be
found, but they will possibly be employed sooner
or later.

For whether we watch the actual strides
which aviation has made in its progress during
the present campaign, or prophesy the future
developments that will arise from it, they all
point to one thing the elimination of Distance
from our hitherto earth-bound existence ; for
the quintessence of the mastery of the air is the
mastery of the long miles from the mountain
to the sea.



IN the last chapter it was said there were two
incentives for the German air raids on England,
and one of them was mentioned. The other
reason is more nearly connected with aviation
itself. After spending millions of pounds and
many years of work in developing Zeppelins, the
German Government, when war came, obviously
had to use their fleet of these dirigibles in one way
or another, if only for the sake of appearances ;
and what could be more spectacular than " attack-
ing " England with them, since it was soon
realised that they could not be used for any
purpose of military value ? If this simple theory
of utility is considered, it can be seen that the
German plan of devoting such a large propor-
tion of their fleet of Zeppelins to futile raids on
England amounts almost to an admission of their



failure in directions of true military importance.
It was, of course, never mentioned to the German
public in the Berlin official reports that the air-
ships were almost blind when they were over
England, and that therefore they were able to do
practically no damage except kill a few civilians ;
and such is the universal ignorance which prevails
regarding aviation, that probably the German
public does not realise this simple circumstance
even up to the present day. In fact, through
German eyes the Zeppelins may have justified
their existence magnificently, and their behaviour
during the War may appear to them to have been
one long triumph.

But has it been ? Could it have been ?
Obviously not, as can be shown by drawing a
rough comparison between the outstanding cap-
abilities of aeroplanes and those of airships in
general, including Zeppelins.

The airship is far slower than the heavier-
than-air flying machine, for the fastest speed
of the one is 55 m.p.h. (or one may even allow
that the latest Zeppelins perhaps approach
nearly 60 m.p.h.) against the 90 or 100 m.p.h.
of a fast aeroplane. Also an aeroplane can
attain a far greater altitude than an airship.


The airship height record, which was made by
the Italian dirigible MI., stands at 12,200 feet,
as against the aeroplane record of over 26,000

The two points where the airship scores over
the aeroplane are in weight-carrying and the
capacity for staying aloft with ease for a long
period. However, in regard to weight-carrying
in particular, it is certain that during the next
few years, or even sooner, the discrepancy in this
respect between airship and aeroplane will lessen
rapidly. It was always stated before the War
that a Zeppelin could carry a ton or more of
explosives, but much less than this appears to
have been dropped from each of them on every
occasion that a raid has been made on England.
It is probably found in actual practice that a
smaller bulk of explosives must be carried,
owing to the great load of fuel which is consumed
on a long journey ; and a large allowance of
lift must be made against the considerable extra
weight, amounting to several tons, which even a
slight shower of rain adds to the weight of the

So far as duration goes, apart from the record-
breaking flights of twenty-four hours or so made


by German aeroplanes, the fact remains that
flights of even four or five hours are a great
strain on an aeroplane pilot. It is but a slight
strain on the crew of an airship to keep aloft
for a considerably longer period.

In comparing the utility of the two types of
aircraft for service in warfare, such a detail as
cost is of small account, so lavishly is money
spent on armaments to-day. So it is but a slight
advantage for the aeroplane that its cost is only
about one-fiftieth that of a Zeppelin. Important
disadvantages are, however, the slow rate at
which these huge dirigibles can be produced ; *
the enormous flat open space they require to
effect a safe landing, and which often cannot be
found near a theatre of war ; the great difficulty
of getting them in their sheds without injury ;
the laborious task of transporting and setting up
the portable hangars, which, owing to their great
size, are very heavy and cumbersome ; and,

1 During the first twelve months of war, for instance, at least
eight, and probably ten, Zeppelins (out of the sixteen with which
Germany started the War) were destroyed in various ways, and, if
sufficient new ones to replace these were constructed in that period,
even that would probably mean the greatest possible speeding-up at
the Potsdam and Friedrichshafen works. It must be remembered
that the Zeppelin shops are constantly occupied with repairs to
existing ships, particularly in war time, and this naturally impedes
the fresh output. A Zeppelin requires a thorough overhauling after
every two or three long journeys.


finally, the practical certainty of destruction
resulting should one of the airships encounter
bad weather, and what would be dangerous
weather for an airship would scarcely trouble an
experienced aeroplane pilot. A large percentage
of the total number of Zeppelins which have been
wrecked were lost owing to bad weather ; at one
stroke, for example, two of the latest naval type
were smashed on the Danish coast during a
snowstorm early in the War. In addition, an
important point is the size of the crew. A
Zeppelin is manned by nearly thirty (although
Italian airships require only about three men)
but an aeroplane only carries one or two ;
and, as these thirty men require quite as much
training as the crew of a submarine, it can be
seen what a severe additional loss in personnel
the destruction of one of these craft entails.

But, after all, the foregoing are only individual
advantages or disadvantages on particular points.
Let there be a fight between a modern aeroplane
and airship, and probably in at least ninety cases
out of a hundred there will be the same result :
the destruction of the dirigible. And, in the
present War, in spite of the seventeen or more
separate air-compartments and the rigid girders


which they possess, the Zeppelins remain as
vulnerable as ever ; and, in fact, it is this very
vulnerability against aeroplanes which keeps
them far away from the firing line x ; and this
necessitates that they shall creep over to England
during the night instead of facing' the daylight,
and, in short, reduces them to a relatively un-
important quantity in the campaign.

During the War up to the time of writing
the late Flight-Sub-Lieutenant Warneford was
the only pilot fortunate enough to meet a
Zeppelin in flight under anything like fair
conditions. It was light enough for him to see
his opponent, and he was already at about an
equal altitude to the airship when he sighted it,
a very lucky circumstance for him.

Warneford's fine act, so far from being a
surprise, was, indeed, an emphatic confirmation
of the opinion for long held in the aviation world
in England and France ; namely, that almost
any clever pilot on a fast aeroplane can bring
down an airship.

The effective method of attacking Zeppelins

1 It is true that on rare occasions the Germans brought one or
two Zeppelins into the field of action on the Eastern Front ; but
they were only able to do this because Russia did not possess sufficient
aeroplanes to cover their huge Front.


is with very fast-flying and quick-climbing aero-
planes such as the British type nicknamed
" tabloids," armed with bombs and with a
large-calibre carbine firing special bullets. The
first object of the attacking airman is to get
above the airship in order that he may be
sheltered from the fire of its guns by the envelope
itself ; he can then drop bombs, which is always
easier and more certain than firing a rifle. In
any case, he would certainly get in a much better
shot gliding down in a rush alongside the gasbag
than by attempting to fire at it from the level
of its gondola, or from below it, in both of which
positions he would be exposed to the airship's
guns. Experiments were carried out some time
ago in mounting a gun on a platform on top of
a Zeppelin, but it was found that the compara-
tively large amount of gas which is always
leaking upwards from an airship would ignite
with the flash of the gun, so the idea was
reluctantly abandoned. If it had proved possible,
it would have made the task of the attacking
aeroplane decidedly more hazardous.

It is obvious that great speed and climbing
power are essential in the aeroplane which, even
under favourable conditions, may deliver a


successful attack on an up-to-date airship. As
previously mentioned, the latest type Zeppelin
can travel at least fifty -five miles an hour in calm
weather, arid the aeroplane which would destroy
such a craft must be able, if necessary, not only
easily to beat its speed, but at the same time fly
all round it, underneath it, or above it.

A curious phenomenon occurred in the case
of the Zeppelin which Flight-Commander Bigs-
worth pursued at 3 A.M. on the 17th May
1915. Commander Bigs worth dropped his bombs
on the dirigible, but it did not blow up. This
was probably because not sufficient air was
mixed with the gas of the airship for the bomb
to ignite it, for the rent in the envelope might
easily almost close up again without allowing
much air through. This, one would imagine, is
an extremely unusual occurrence, and is hardly
likely to happen often. A sensible idea might be
to release two bombs almost together, the first
being a high-explosive to tear the fabric open,
and the other an incendiary bomb to ignite the

It has been suggested that aeroplanes should
escort airships on raids, etc., and defend them
against attacks by hostile aeroplanes. The idea


might be practical if the speed of an airship could
approach that of aeroplanes * which would be fast
enough to repel attacks. However, as things
are, it is not quite clear how the escorting
machines would pass the time waiting for their
charge. One writer has humorously suggested
that the aeroplane pilots should loop the loop
and practise tricks in the intervals ! Anyway,
it is certain that no sort of order or formation
could be maintained, and it is strongly probable
that the idea would prove a failure.

Although it has been shown that a Zeppelin
or, for that matter, any airship is no match for
an aeroplane, it does not follow that these lighter-
than-air craft have no uses at all in warfare. For
instance, Zeppelins have done a great deal of
patrol work round the German harbours in the
North Sea, and for this they are admirably
suited. Again, they might be useful for trans-
porting important personnel or light material
rapidly to places where there were no railway

1 It may be pointed out that aeroplanes which would be effective
for repelling hostile aeroplanes attacking the airship would have to
possess a speed of at least 90 or 100 miles an hour, while the speed of
the fastest Zeppelin does not exceed 60 m.p.h. The normal speed
of such fast aeroplanes cannot be safely reduced to 60 m.p.h. for
any considerable period, although fast machines can generally be
slowed down for short distances to a much lower rate even than

1 2 4 6 7 8 9

Online LibraryWilliam Alexander RobsonAircraft in war and peace → online text (page 4 of 9)