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Black September 1918: WWI’s Darkest Month in the Air

Black September 1918: WWI’s Darkest Month in the Air

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Black September 1918: WWI’s Darkest Month in the Air

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3 ore
Sep 27, 2018


The follow-up to Bloody April 1917 continues fifteen months later into World War I. Much had happened over this period. More battles had been fought, won and lost on both sides, but now the American strength was feeding in to France with both men and material. With the mighty push on the French/American Front at St Mihiel on 12 September and then along the Meuse-Argonne Front from the 26th, once more masses of men and aircraft were put into the air. They were opposed by no less a formidable German fighter force than had the squadrons in April 1917 although the numbers were not in their favour. Nevertheless, the German fighter pilots were able to inflict an even larger toll of British, French and American aircraft shot down, making this the worst month for the Allied flyers during the whole of World War I – and this just a mere six weeks from the war’s bloody finale. As with their previous book, the authors of Black September 1918 have analysed the daily events throughout September with the use of lists of casualties and claims from both sides. The book also contains seven detailed appendices examining the victory claims of all the air forces that fought during September 1918. Although it is difficult to pin-point exactly who was fighting who high above the trenches, by pouring over maps and carefully studying almost all the surviving records, the picture of ‘who got who’ in the air slowly begins to emerge with deadly accuracy. Coinciding with the centenary of the end of World War I, Black September 1918 is a profusely illustrated and essential reference piece to understanding one of the crucial months of war in the skies.
Sep 27, 2018

Informazioni sull'autore

Norman Franks is a respected historian and author. Previous titles for Pen and Sword include InThe Footsteps of the Red Baron (co-authored with Mike OConnor), The Fighting Cocks, RAF Fighter Pilots Over Burma, Dogfight, The Fallen Few of the Battle of Britain (with Nigel McCrery) and Dowdings Eagles. Over the course of his career, Frank has published some of the most compelling works on First World War fighter aviation, being one of the worlds leading authorities on the subject. He lives in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex.

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Black September 1918 - Norman Franks



In the new year of 1918, there was the familiar lull of winter, but with the release of German troops from the Russian front following the Russian Revolution and the ending of the war in the East, the Germans mounted a huge offensive with the First Battle of the Somme (20 March to 5 April), which so nearly achieved a complete breakthrough for the Central Powers. Other battles followed: the Lys (9 to 29 April), the Aisne (27 May to 6 June); while in the south, the Germans reached the Marne on 31 May.

The failure of the Germans’ March offensives sent a chill through the German High Command, for it knew only too well that finally, after almost a year since declaring war on Germany, American might was beginning to arrive in France. Once men and munitions from across the Atlantic became a flood, Germany knew her ability to wage war would begin to crumble. The Allies just had too many men from the Empire and from the Americas to call upon.

Fully aware of the strength of American industrial might and men, the Germans had formulated their ‘Amerika Program’ over the winter of 1917-18 which led to an increase in the size of their air force. The number of Jastas was increased from 40 to 80, but it did not mean an immediate doubling of opposition for the Allied airmen. Many of the newly created units took time to become established, generally they had inferior aircraft types to begin with, and mostly the personnel were inexperienced, although led by an acknowledged veteran or ace.

The two-seater Schutzstaffeln were renamed Schlactstaffeln and used for infantry support and ground attack, first used with some effect at Cambrai in late 1917. With the ending of the war in Russia, a number of experienced flyers were released for duty on the Western Front in the spring of 1918.

The French began the Fourth Battle of Champagne (15 to 18 July) and as this ended came the Second Battle of the Marne which lasted until 7 August. The British fought the Battle of Amiens (8 to 11 August), which really began to cut deep into German territory, and began a series of battles which broke the German army apart. The British advance in Flanders (18 August), the Second Battle of the Somme (21 August) and the Second Battle of Arras (26 August), all hit home. These latter two came to an end on 3 September and now the stage was set for a mighty attack upon the German Hindenburg Line, while the French and Americans opened an assault at Saint-Mihiel (12 September) to be followed by the Champagne and Argonne Battles on the 26th.

In broad terms the air war had changed little since April 1917. The RFC had become the Royal Air Force, with the amalgamation of the RFC and Royal Naval Air Service on 1 April 1918, but was still fighting an offensive war, taking the fight to the Germans. For their part, the German Air Service were content to let the British and French come to them, and continued to let the Allied airmen dash themselves against their Jastas.

This German tactic had evolved since late 1916, due at that time to numbers. The British and French were always numerically superior in men and aircraft and so the German fighter pilots took up a defensive war. In many ways they were happy to be able, more or less, to choose the moment of combat, or decline it if odds and conditions proved unfavourable. They could wait on their fighter airfields until their enemies were reported to be crossing the lines and still have time to gain height and be ready to attack. They could also break off any time and land, whereas the British and French always had to remember that they had to fly back over the lines to reach safety. With drying fuel tanks, running short of ammunition and often against a prevailing west to east wind, the Allied airmen often had a bitter struggle to get back to the safety of their own lines. Knowing this, other German Jasta pilots would be waiting for them to do just that, but with full petrol tanks and gun-belts.

By the summer of 1918, the SE5a and Camel, plus the two-seater Bristol Fighter, were the main fighter equipment for the British, plus four squadrons of Sopwith Dolphins, a machine that was every bit as good as the Camel but could operate at greater altitudes too. The French fighters were now mostly all Spad XIIIs, while the Americans had come through their initial period with the Nieuport 28s and were also flying Spad XIIIs.

The Germans still flew Albatros Scouts, but had progressed from the DII and DIIIs of April 1917 to the DV and DVa, although neither was a real match for the Allied fighter opposition. Nor was another type, similar in general appearance to the Albatros, the Pfalz DIII, which swelled the Jasta ranks in the summer of 1917. In a few weeks in early autumn of that year, the Germans had brought out the Fokker DrI triplane, which produced a flurry of activity and success until a weakness in the upper wings – resulting in the death of several pilots – had caused the new type to be withdrawn and modified. In the spring of 1918 it reappeared, and for another brief period became a deadly opponent, notably in the hands of von Richthofen. But now, in the summer of 1918, the German Jasta pilots had perhaps their best ever fighter, the Fokker DVII biplane, a type with which both the novice and the expert fighter could meet any opposition on more than equal terms. And by this time, the Allied types were all beginning to look a bit long in the tooth, although far from being outdated.

Tactics and ideas had changed however. In mid-1917 the Germans had built on an earlier idea to group Jastas together, the first being Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11. These became Jagdesgeschwader No.1 (JG1) under the command of the leading German ace, Manfred von Richthofen. The purpose of this permanent grouping was so that as a unit it could be moved to various parts of the battle front wherever it was needed, to oppose, for instance, an Allied offensive, which would naturally be supported in some strength by additional British or French squadrons.

With this mobility, and the increasingly colourful garb used by the German fighter pilots on their aircraft, these Jagdesgeschwader units soon became known as Flying Circuses. In total there were four Jagdesgeschwaderen, three Prussian – JG1, JG2 and JG3 – and one Bavarian, JG4.

The reader will notice we said ‘permanent grouping’; there were, in addition, several non-permanent groupings of Jastas, and these became known as a Jagdgruppe, e.g. JGr1, JGr2 and so on. These were grouped together for specific duties and could be interchanged or even disbanded as was found necessary or expedient. Whether it was a JG or a JGr, a senior pilot would command such a unit, although not necessarily a leading ace. The German Air Service, like the Army and Navy, went on rank and ability, not just ability. Therefore one can find a number of Jasta or Jagdgruppes commanded by a pilot with few or even no air combat victories, leading other pilots with some quite sizeable scores. Even individual Jastas would not necessarily be commanded by a top-notch fighter pilot.

The Germans continued to employ a defensive stance, letting the Allied aircraft still come to them. In many ways this was still a good tactic, as it continued to give the German fighter pilots the choice of when to attack as well as the ability to break off combat and land if necessary, without being taken prisoner. The disadvantage, of course, was that German front-line troops would constantly see more Allied aircraft over them, often, by this later stage of the war, strafing and bombing them from low level, with very little interference from their own Fokker and Albatros pilots.

It also allowed the Allied airmen to become adept at forcing their way through packs of German fighters to raid a target, and even though several attacking bombers might be brought down, the target was often either destroyed or severely hit, causing not only casualties but the destruction of stores, ammunition, etc. and disruption to road and rail traffic bringing much needed troops and/or supplies to the front.

Numbers were still in the Allies’ favour, which is why the Germans continued in the overall defensive air war, but this also hindered the German two-seater recce and artillery observation crews from doing their work. Any reconnaissance of the Allied rear areas was always flown unescorted, the crews using cloud cover and height for their main protection.

Both sides used front-line ground-attack aircraft. The Allied airmen were generally fighting pilots – mostly Camel flyers – who would take on this duty in addition to air fighting, whereas the SE5 pilots tended to keep to air combat, but not strictly so. Dolphins and Bristol Fighters could also be used in the ground-strafing role.

On the German side, they used two-seaters such as the Halberstadt CLII or III, and the Hannover CLIII, with extra armour, in units called Schutzstaffeleln. Some units also used the Junkers JI armoured monoplanes.

In fact, ground attack and ground strafing had really begun during April 1917, and by the summer of that year was used with increasing regularity by the British in particular, especially in the Cambrai battle. By the spring of 1918 and certainly by the summer, the RAF had this tactic down to a fine art. It often cost them men and aircraft, but the effect on the German ground soldiers was marked.

By 1918 the British and French were also using aircraft in groups, although they were not so rigidly organised as the German Jagdesgeschwader formations. The French formed Groupes de Combat (GC), the British using Wings, although this title should not be confused in any way with the Wings of WWII. When used, the British formation tended to be made up of specialist aircraft, e.g. Camels at a lower level, SE5s higher with Dolphins or Bristols above them. Bombing aircraft, such as the now well established DH4 and DH9s, or the Bréguet XIVs of the French, were now regularly escorted by fighters. It didn’t always happen as planned, for this was still the era before air-to-air radio communications, so bombers and fighters making a rendezvous could lose each other/not find each other, and when the bombers ‘pressed on’ unescorted, they would find themselves under attack without any single-seater protection.

There was still no direct fighter protection for the Corps aircraft, their ‘protection’ still being in the form of fighter patrols in their area of activity. The poor old BEs had long gone, the main artillery machine being the RE8. This was still a 1917 machine but at least the crews were better trained now.

The French had begun to group their units together as early as 1916, although they tended to fight a less aggressive air war than their British counterparts. These Groupes de Combat totalled 16 by early 1918, and by February there were 21.

By 1918, larger groups of aircraft were needed by the French, to cover expanding ground operations, and under a central control. Therefore, they began reorganising a number of Groupes de Combat into Escadres de Combat, commanded by a Chef de Battaillon. Like the Germans, these units would be commanded by a senior officer, not necessarily a leading air ace. And just as JG1 had become known as the Richthofen Geschwader, so too did some of the Escadres de Combat become known by the name of their commander, e.g: Escadre de Combat No.1 was known as Groupement Ménard (being commanded by Victor Ménard).

In turn, units, groupes and escadres could be built into an even larger establishment of both fighter and bomber units. In May 1918 the French created the 1ère Division Aérienne, under the command of a general, which consisted of Groupement Ménard, plus three other Groupes de Combat plus Escadre de Bombardement No.12 (which was itself made up of three Groupes de Bombardement), together with Escadre No.2 (Groupement Fequant), three GCs and another full Escadre de Bombardement.

Each GC would generally have some 72 Spads, while each GB would muster 45 Bréguet bombers. In addition there were also some Escadrilles de Protection, equipped with large Caudron R11 aircraft, used in effect like gun ships to ward off attacking fighters. Both the British and the French had night-bombing units, and the RAF also had its Independent Air Force bombers, de Havilland 4s and 9s, and Handley Page 0/400 twin-engined three-seat bombers, used for attacking deep behind enemy lines, or even Germany itself.

For their part, by mid-1918, the American Air Service (USAS) were now operating in strength in support of their own and French ground troops. During August 1918 Colonel William (Billy) Mitchell was made commander of a recently organised (US) First Army Air Service and in co-operation with the ground commanders was preparing for an assault against the Saint-Mihiel front. Therefore, as the British to the north were pressing the Hindenburg Line, the French and Americans would attack at Saint-Mihiel, commencing 12 September.

For the drive on this front, Mitchell had convinced the French to fall in with his overall plan and had also managed to persuade them to put a large part of their air force at his disposal. As it turned out, by the time the attack began, Billy Mitchell had under his command, or co-operating with it, the largest number of units and aircraft to engage in a single offensive operation during WWI.

His own American forces consisted of 12 fighter (pursuit) squadrons, three day-bombing squadrons, ten observation (reconnaissance) squadrons and one night reconnaissance squadron. To this force the French assigned their Ière Division Aérienne, which consisted of 42 fighter and day bombardment squadrons, two squadrons of French and three Italian night-bombing squadrons and 12 squadrons of French observation aircraft. He also had four French fighter squadrons attached to his 1st Pursuit Group (which itself consisted of four pursuit squadrons), which would move to this part of the front on the eve of the battle. To this force he could also call upon the eight bomber squadrons of Sir Hugh Trenchard’s Independent Air Force, and while these were not under Mitchell’s direct orders, they undertook missions in support of his overall battle plan.

As the Saint-Mihiel drive began, the number of aircraft Mitchell had under his orders was reputed to have been 701 fighters, 366 reconnaissance, 323 day bombers and 91 night bombers; a total of 1,481. Opposing this mighty force, the Germans had an estimated strength of some 213 aircraft – 72 fighters, 24 bombers, 105 reconnaissance, six battle (ground attack) and six long-distance photo machines. Some of the fighter units were in the midst of re-equipping from Albatros and Pfalz Scouts to the new Fokker DVII type.

The day after the drive began, the Germans reinforced their air units with the four Jastas of Jagdesgeschwader Nr.2, commanded by Oskar von Boenigk. Towards the end of the month, the 28th, JG1 arrived, under Hermann Göring, but by this date the Saint-Mihiel offensive had ended, and the Meuse-Argonne battle had begun two days earlier.

Despite the numerical superiority of the combined American and French air forces, the German fighter pilots still managed to inflict tremendous losses on them. In fact, as will be seen, September was to be the worst month for Allied air casualties during the whole of WWI – and this all happened just six weeks prior to the Armistice. Thus, despite a gradual decimation of the top aces of the German Air Service, those who survived, supported by the successful up-and-coming air fighters, were able to wreak havoc upon the generally less aggressive French and the keen but more inexperienced Americans. JG2, in fact, claimed more than 80 victories for just five casualties. In the final analysis, however, it was weight of numbers, lack of adequate pilot replacements and scarcity of fuel which tended to defeat the Germans.

On the British fronts, gone were the days of 1917. Generally speaking the new pilots arriving to fill gaps in the single and two-seater squadrons had more flying hours in their logbooks than those of a year or eighteen months before. They also had the benefit of a more structured and aggressive training, especially in mock air combat, at such places as the School of Air Fighting at Ayr in Scotland. The instructors too were far more experienced, thanks to the School of Special Flying at Gosport, Hampshire, which helped not only to train new pilots but to train instructors how to instruct. The improved techniques were followed by other training establishments.

By September 1918 there were hardly any men still flying combat in the RAF who had been in action in April 1917. Those that had survived were by this time either instructors, squadron commanders (many non-flying), working at various headquarters or back in England. The British had the luxury of a constant stream of eager young airmen only too willing to take their place on the Western Front, not merely from Britain but from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other lands of the Empire.

The Germans, on the other hand, did have some of their spring 1917 flyers still in action. Many had fallen, among whom were some of the great aces such as Manfred von Richthofen, Werner Voss, Kurt Wolff, Karl Allmenröder, Emil Schäfer and so on. But Hermann Göring was a Jagdesgeschwader commander, and so too was Bruno Loerzer; Hermann Frommherz was an active Jasta commander while Julius Buckler was about to command Jasta 22, having been with Jasta 17 since 1916. Robert Greim, commanding Jagdgruppe 9 had been flying since 1915, and so had Josef Jacobs, who now commanded Jasta 7 as he had done since August 1917. Reinhold Jörke had scored his second kill in April 1917 and in September 1918 was commanding Jasta 39. Emil Thuy also gained his second victory in April 1917, having then been Staffelführer of Jasta 28 since September of the same year. Ernst Udet, second only to von Richthofen in air victories, was still active, having downed his first adversary in March 1916, and now led Jasta 4. Josef Veltjens was another Bloody April veteran, and now commander of Jasta 15.

There were any number of others, either flying fighters in early 1917 or operating in two-seater units, who were still ‘operational’ in September 1918. Friedrich Altemeier had been scoring steadily with Jasta 24 since December 1916! Paul Baümer, Hermann Becker, Walter Blume, Franz Büchner, Carl Degelow, Alois Heldman, Rudolf Klimke, Otto Könnecke, Josef Mai, George Meyer, Karl Odebrett, Karl Ritscherle, Fritz Röth, Fritz Rumey, Emil Schäpe, Eduard von Schleich, Otto Schmidt and Paul Strähle, were just some of the aces of 1918 who had gained vast experience of air fighting and were still passing on their knowledge and skills to the latest recruits to their Jastas.

Among the French, there were some aces still flying over the front who had been active in the spring of 1917. René Fonck, the French ace of aces, was still scoring with Spa.103, having been with this unit for 16 months and recording victories since the summer of 1916. Bernard Barny de Romanet had been flying since 1915, and was now commanding Spa.167; François Battesti had gained his first victory in April 1917 with N.73 and was still operating with it. Maurice Boyau had been with N.77 in early 1917 and was still with it, his score now in the thirties. Jean Casale was another 1915 veteran, now flying Spads with Spa.38, while Gustave Daladier had gained his first kill in April 1917 flying Nieuports and was still with Spa.93. Paul d’Argueff had been fighting the Germans over the Russian front in early 1917, and was now with Spa.124. Armand de Turenne gained his second victory in April 1917, and was now commander of Spa.12. Claude Haegelen would score heavily in September 1918, having been with the Storks since early 1917, and Henri de Slade, commander of Spa.159, had been flying since 1916. Georges Madon had scored 40 victories by the end of August 1918, his 9th having been achieved during April 1917, all with Spa.38. Gilbert Sardier commanded Spa.48, and he too had been active since 1916.

So here too was experience after a long apprenticeship, with knowledge being passed to the embryo fighter pilots. Admittedly the French fought a less aggressive war than the RFC/RNAS/RAF, and often they generally faced less aggressive German units, but over many battles and especially during the heavy and prolonged fighting at Verdun, the French pilots had done well.

The scene was thus set for this mighty, final clash which took place in the September 1918 skies of France. The outcome was heavy material and personnel losses for the Allied air forces, but already the die was cast; Germany would be forced to sue for peace six weeks after Black September came to an end. For the German Jasta pilots, it was their last fling.*

American Order of Battle

*The authors will often refer to the events of April 1917 to September 1918, the former having been the worst month for aerial casualties prior to September. (see Bloody April 1917 by Franks, Guest and Bailey, Grub Street, 2017.)

British Front

This late summer opened with fair visibility but a high wind. The British army was pushing forward along both sides of the Somme River, following up a series of attacks that had begun on 8 August 1918, with the Canadians and Australians breaking open the German front facing Amiens. On this day the Australians attacked the heavily defended Mont Saint-Quentin, just north of Péronne and Péronne town itself. Péronne lay on the Somme, and crossing the river here would roll up the Germans to the north, forcing a retreat behind their prepared positions on the Hindenburg Line.

Further to the north, August had seen General Sir Julian Byng’s 3rd Army attack on the 21st. They were now facing the infamous Drocourt-Quéant switch-line of April 1917 fame. They would attack it on the morrow. Bapaume had fallen on the 29th and the northern flank of the 4th Army was also closing on the Hindenburg Line. The German army was on the defensive and showing increasing signs of disintegration.

In the air, things were different. The RAF had suffered heavily in August, and now faced well-equipped opposition in the shape of firmly established Jastas flying Fokker DVIIs. The RAF’s day bombers needed escorting now as a matter of course, otherwise casualties were high. The four types of RAF fighters had seen long service, and indeed, only the Sopwith Dolphin was a 1918 aeroplane, and there were only four squadrons of them. The SE5a could hold its own with Fokker DVIIs but the main fighter, the Sopwith Camel, was rapidly becoming obsolete. This was evidenced in the last ten days of August, which witnessed the loss of five American-flown Camels in one fight on the 26th, while 43 Squadron lost another six the next day. The last main fighter-type was the Bristol F2b two-seat fighter, which had started life so ingloriously in April 1917, but which now had become a formidable foe. There were six squadrons of ‘Brisfits’ in France used also extensively for long-range reconnaissance sorties. The Germans were suffering their own difficulties, attrition was hard to replace, aviation fuel was in short supply, while their two-seater crews were now restricted in their operations by their lack of ability to avoid, out-fly or out-fight Allied fighters.

Aerial operations on the RAF’s front as the month opened can be characterised in terms of the three main sectors of aerial activity: army co-operation, day bombing and fighter operations – including low bombing and strafing. (Night bombing was also becoming a regular feature, especially with the Independent Air Force’s Handley Page bombers, under Hugh Trenchard.)

The prime initiation of aerial combat was when RAF patrols encountered patrols of German fighters that were prepared to engage. The German pilots still preferred to engage only when they had a distinct advantage, whereas the British and American pilots invariably attacked everything whatever the odds against them. As the Germans concentrated their resources on key sectors of the front, aerial activity was much more intense over the area of an offensive by the Army. In early September

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