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First World War home page The First World War, 1914 - 1918
The Western Front, 1914 -1918
Life in the trenches
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The war in the skies
The war elsewhere in Europe
The war outside Europe
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The war in the skies

When war broke out in 1914, it was just 13 years since the Wright brothers had flown their first aeroplane. Air power was not yet an established area of military operations. The British authorities were slow to recognise its potential importance - witness the officer who remarked that the aeroplane would be useless to the army as it flew too fast for anything to be seen from it. Within the space of four years, however, air power had become an integral part of modern warfare.

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The birth of the RAF

For most of the war, there was no separate British military branch for air warfare. The Glossary - opens new windowRoyal Flying Corps (RFC), formed in May 1912, was an army corps whose primary purpose was to make available British air power for the land war. The Glossary - opens new windowRoyal Naval Air Service (RNAS) performed a similar function for the Grand Fleet.

It was not until 1 April 1918 that the RFC and the RNAS were merged into a separate military organisation called the Glossary - opens new windowRoyal Air Force (RAF). This limited remit largely confined air power to a supporting role in the First World War.

Film of  observation balloon - opens new window
Watch film of an observation
balloon being attacked.
Stills from film - opens new window

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Pre-war Europeans had been amazed by the sight of 'flying machines' in the skies above the continent. In particular, the large, cigar-shaped airships, known as Glossary - opens new windowZeppelins, came to be seen as harbingers of death and destruction. The number of casualties caused by wartime Spotlights on historyair raids was relatively small. More people died in one week in London (in October 1918) from the Glossary - opens new windowinfluenza pandemic than from four years of German air attacks on the city. But the air raid symbolised the new vulnerability of civilians in total war. It also presaged the devastation that air power was to cause - with far more destructive weapons - during the Second World War.


Zeppelin wreck - opens new window
Zeppelin wreck

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Air aces
RAF summary of intelligence - opens new window
Air iIntelligence summary(136k)


Listen to account of air attacks on Western Front:
J C F Hopkins
Loudspeaker - opens a new window
The war in the skies created a new breed of combat hero: the 'air ace'. Most famous of all was the aristocratic German flying legend, Manfred von Richthofen, the Glossary - opens new window'Red Baron'. Between September 1916 and his death in April 1918, Richthofen shot down a total of 80 Allied planes over the Western Front.

Not all fighter pilots were so loudly celebrated. In November 1917, for example, Allied soldiers in France sent a note to The Times praising the actions of the 'Unknown Airman' who had been killed while defending them from German machine-gun fire near Glossary - opens new windowBourlon Wood.

The First World War was not decided in the skies. Nonetheless, air warfare played a steadily increasing role in the conflict between the Allies and the Central Powers. The practice of dropping leaflets on enemy troops, begun in September 1914 by German planes over the French town of Nancy, was an important part of the propaganda war. Aircraft were deployed for reconnaissance purposes and featured regularly in trench warfare on the Western Front, strafing enemy lines during confrontations such as the Battle of the Glossary - opens new windowSomme in 1916. On both the Western and Glossary - opens new windowPalestine fronts, air power was an important factor in the Allied advances of 1918.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

AIR 1/677/21/13/1887: Air operations on the Western Front, May-Nov 1918.
AIR 1/686/21/13/2244: Various material on RNAS Flight Sub-Lieutenant C R Mackenzie, 1915-18.
AIR 1/686/21/13/2250: Translated copies of the combat reports of the 'Red Baron', Sep 1916-Apr 1918.
AIR 1/2135/209/1/2-8: RFC reconnaissance reports, Sep-Nov 1914.
AIR 1/2397/262/2: Various on the shooting down of the 'Red Baron' by Captain Roy Brown, 21 Apr 1918.

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