The outbreak of World War One occurred just 11 years after the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight in North Carolina. By the outbreak of hostilities, aircraft technology had developed rapidly, and the belligerents were using aviation as part of their military strategy. Before this, aerial warfare consisted of reconnaissance using hot air balloons. World War Two then took the technology and tactics and updated them for a new era of warfare.
From reconnaissance to bombing and air combat
In the context of aviation today, the aircraft deployed in World War One were basic, with open cockpits and no navigational aids. Using maps, following railway lines, and even landing to ask for directions were all part of early methods for navigation. This was even more hazardous as troops on the ground could not identify friend from foe and often shot at any aircraft they saw.
Initially, aircraft were only used for reconnaissance missions. The Royal Air Force (RAF) deployed B.E.2 aircraft for reconnaissance and to provide intelligence about enemy activity. It soon became apparent that successful reconnaissance missions would offer a considerable advantage over the enemy, and developments in air combat were rapidly introduced to shoot down enemy aircraft. Initially, pilots tried to shoot their opponents with small arms fire.
World War One was the first time aircraft were used to bomb targets on the ground. Germany used Zeppelin airships in bombing raids on targets in the UK in 1915, in the first focused and targeted aerial bombing missions.
The earliest military aircraft were unarmed, and the only weapons onboard would have been carried by the pilots. The earliest use of deadly force by aircraft was from objects and explosives dropped from the plane onto soldiers on the ground. Air-to-air combat began to advance from small arms fire to fitting machine guns to aircraft, starting around 1915. The Fokker Eindekker was one of the first aircraft fitted with technology that enabled the weapon to be fired through the moving propellor blades.
Air-to-air combat spawned the first celebrity pilots with their exploits during dogfights. Flying Aces or Air Aces were pilots credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft. Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was arguably the most famous during World War One. Known as the ‘Red Baron’, he was a pilot in the German Air Force and was credited with shooting down 80 aircraft before being shot down and fatally wounded in 1918.
World War One taught military leaders that controlling the air was essential, and air superiority has become an important part of military strategy ever since.
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Jet aircraft, radar, widespread aerial bombing, and mass production of aircraft
By the time World War Two began, aviation was integral to military strategy, and further developments occurred during the conflict. The conflict is synonymous with aircraft such as the Spitfire, Messerschmitt Bf 109, and Boeing B-29 Superfortress, but it was the first time jet fighter aircraft were used in combat. The first jet fighter deployed in World War Two was in April 1944. The Messerschmitt Me 262 went into service with the Luftwaffe and was faster and more maneuverable than earlier aircraft. The Gloster Meteor was the next, going into service with the RAF the same year.
Radar had been developed before World War Two, but its first widespread deployment was in the war. It was used successfully to defend Britain during the Battle of Britain, helping to direct resources to engage with enemy aircraft systematically.
Throughout World War Two, cities worldwide were devasted by aerial bombing. The destruction changed the face of many cities and drastically altered their appearance. This was evident in postwar reconstruction when some cities chose to rebuild, and others decided to plan for the motor car.
There were other changes to aviation resulting from World War Two, and we examined these in a previous article. These included the first mass production lines of aircraft manufacturing, the design of new aircraft technology, and the widespread construction of aerodromes, many of which became civilian airfields.
Military conflict tends to speed up the development and implementation of military technology, some transitioning into civilian technology. Aviation played a massive role in both World Wars and was a testbed for technology then adapted for civilian use.
These are just some examples, and we would be interested to hear your views in the comments section on other areas where aviation played a role in the World Wars.