Tuesday Feb 12th, 1918
Stand to 5:40, breakfast 6:30. Company guard 9am – it’s a gift. About 12:30 16 of our Air Machines return over ridge of hills and Doiran Lake after making raid in Johnny’s possessions.
After a night spent laying wire in Dead Man’s Ravine, it is no wonder that ‘company guard’ duty seems like a gift to Frank. The excitement in both diaries today is provided by the Royal Flying Corps. Frank refers to ‘Air Machines’ – which highlights how novel they were. Don’t forget that the first powered flight by the Wright brothers was in only 1903. This is a new military force that will prove its value over the course of the war.
At the start of WWI, there were two British flying units: the Royal Flying Corps attached to the British Army, and the Royal Naval Air Service. Each comprised a variety of aeroplanes, airships and balloons – but together still totalled less than 200 craft. They will merge in April 1918 to become the Royal Air Force, sitting alongside both the Army and the Navy. Within a year of its formation, the RAF will boast over 4,000 aircraft, 150 squadrons and 114,000 personnel.
Reconnaissance and map making
Over the course of the war, the role of the air service evolved rapidly. Initially, it was reconnaissance. This was prized almost immediately. Sir John French, commander of the BEF, mentioned it in his first official dispatch on September 7th 1914: “I wish particularly to … notice the admirable work done by the Royal Flying Corps under Sir David Henderson. Their skill, energy, and perseverance has been beyond all praise. They have furnished me with most complete and accurate information, which has been of incalculable value in the conduct of operations.”¹
Despite the praise, the quality and timeliness of reconnaissance information continued to improve. Air to ground contact was revolutionized by the development of lightweight wireless communication in 1915. Before then the pilot had to land the plane or drop a note! Similarly better cameras meant that, by the end of the war, accurate photographs could be taken at 15,000 feet. The Dojran map of July 1917, as used by the 13th, relied heavily on aerial photographs to determine the topography and entrenchments in enemy territory.
The following short extract of film footage shows an observer using his camera (rather precariously) from a bi-plane. The full, fascinating film from the Australian War Memorial is available in a link at the foot of this post.
Aerial combat and bombing raids
Soon information-gathering was supplemented by actual warfare. ‘Ace’ pilots on both sides became glamorized and famous for their duels in the air. Aircraft also strafed infantry and enemy emplacements and bombed airfields and other strategic targets. These developments would pave the way to more specialist and modified planes.
By 1918, the British in Salonika had moved to latest generation aircraft. Hopefully their bombing raids north of Piton Chauve did not involve dropping the hand grenades or home-made petrol bombs that had been used early in the war on the Western Front by some enterprising pilots!¹ The following footage shows a range of similarly ridiculous to sublime methods for carrying and dropping bombs.
13th (Service) Battalion War Diary – 12th February 1918 – No 1 Sector, Minden Camp
Heavies on both sides active all day but no shells fell in the Sector. The heavy Trench Mortar in O1 fired four rounds on our line (B4). Our light Trench Mortar fired on O1 & O2. Our Machine Guns fired bursts on various targets throughout the early hours before daylight. Enemy Machine Guns quiet. About 11:00 hrs 15 of our planes dropped bombs on enemy positions North of Piton Chauve, all returned by 12:00 hrs. Enemy put up a very heavy AA (Anti-Aircraft) barrage.
Our patrols went out as usual, one from each Coy in the line. Enemy working parties were heard in the direction of O3. Our guns have done much more damage to the Pill Box in O2. A draft of 48 OR having arrived is taken on the effective strength with effect from 11-2-18. 1 OR struck off under GRO 1011 with effect from 11-2-18 and 1 OR with effect from 12-2-18.
References & Further Reading
¹ Royal Flying Corps, Wikipedia
Royal Naval Air Service, Wikipedia
The Royal Flying Corps, History Learning Site
Over the Front – original aircraft footage, Australian War Memorial