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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 92 > Article

Wings of War:
Historian Shoots Down Myths of
World War I Aviation

by Judy Purdy

Curse you, Red Baron.

All these years, we trusted the tale of your legendary duels with Snoopy's Sopwith Camel.

We envisioned the dogfights between the tri-plane German Fokkers and the best of Britain's burgeoning aviation industry.

And now we learn the truth: World War I aviators took to the air most often, not in craft of German or British design, but in French planes.

That's just one detail revealed in the research of historian John Morrow, who has developed new a interpretation of early air warfare and its importance in World War I.

Morrow is in the business of debunking myths in the one aspect of our culture that is shrouded in more public relations hoopla than any other: war.

"What I'm trying to do in my research is get beneath the myth of the war and look at the reality," said Morrow, whose findings will be published as a book by the Smithsonian Institution Press late next spring.

"Myths are very powerful elements in our consciousness," he said. "The problem is that sometimes you begin to believe your own PR -- you begin to believe the myths."

Such is the case with the War To End All Wars.

Romance, legend -- and sometimes lies -- were the tools governments used to mobilize their people and their industries for war.

The hype often obscured the ironies inherent in the war. Case in point: The most technologically advanced weaponry in the history of warfare -- the airplane -- frequently was hauled to the Eastern Front by one of the most primitive forms of technology, the ox cart.

Unfortunately, the myths created by the image makers of World War I infiltrated the annals in which historians chronicled the conflict.

Historians generally have emphasized the feats of heroic flyers, the dismal reality of trench warfare, the power politics of the rival nations. But they've largely overlooked the details of industrial mobilization that made it all possible.

That's an oversight Morrow seeks to amend.

Appropriately, he was inspired to study the machinery of past wars by witnessing the military-industrial machine that fueled the Vietnam War, which raged when he was a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Morrow began to probe the infrastructure of war, specifically the first truly global conflict, World War I.

His doctoral dissertation led to a book, Building German Air Power, 1909-1914, which examined not only the military-industrial complex, but also the cultural and political decisions that made it possible. That book was followed by another, German Air Power in World War I.

From focusing on merely the German war machine, he turned to examine the broader conflict. Exploring records from all the major war powers, including documents that had remained sealed for decades, he began to piece together a view of air power few historians had even looked for.

"I don't think you can determine how important something is just by looking at it by itself," said Morrow, the Franklin Professor of History and head of The University of Georgia history department.

"Air warfare is more significant than many people have realized," he said. "The real importance of aviation in the ground war -- observation, tactical bombardment and ground support -- is seen when you look at a bigger picture."

What Morrow found was a hole in history's treatment of the war. No one, it seemed, had explored how societal decisions underpinned the development of the fledgling air forces. Nor did historians have a full grasp of the interaction between governments and industries that made possible such great strides in air power.

For example, British scholars had written volumes on air power, but their focus was, predictably, on British planes and pilots. In general, Germany and Great Britain were considered the leaders in air warfare.

The literature published in English appeared to have neglected France's role in developing and producing wartime aviation technology -- and how that nascent technology spurred further development by the other major world powers.

"The French contributed more to the air war than people realize. The evidence is very clear about who is producing what and how much -- and who is using all the French airplanes and engines," Morrow said. "If you look at the production of aircraft and airplanes, you find the French are really the people who produced the most airplanes and aviation engines."

By the time the major combatants were well committed to the war effort, "France was out-producing both England and Germany two-to-one," Morrow said.

The industrial mobilization required to support such an effort was setting the standard for generations to come.


Young Industry Gears up for War

Aviation was in its infancy when the war broke out. The Wright brothers had flown the first heavier-than-air, self-propelled flying machine 100 feet in 1903, just 11 years before the start of the war.

In 1910 the French government, which founded the world's first air service, owned only 30 aircraft and had 52 military pilots. Even when they entered the war, France had accumulated only 160 aircraft and 15 lighter-than-air craft; Britain had 113 aircraft and 6 airships. Germany alone boasted 246 aircraft and 7 Zeppelins.

By war's end just four-and-a-half years later, those numbers had changed dramatically.

"During World War I the French aviation industry built about 52,000 airplanes and almost 88,000 engines," which meant the French were supplying much of the aerial hardware being used by their allies, Morrow said.

While the British and Germans each produced more than 45,000 planes, neither nation produced more than 41,000 engines. The French, Morrow said, started earlier and prepared better for the industrial challenge.

In its heyday, when France was the leading producer of warplanes in the world, the embattled nation was producing more than 4,000 engines and 2,000 aircraft per month -- all handmade.

Such a turnaround in France's industrial production required enormous resources and serious commitments on behalf of both government and the private sector.

"When you have 1500 to 3000 planes at the front and you are producing thousands a month to supply the front, it is preceded by a government's decisions to fund the commitment," he said.

The facts and figures of airplane construction easily might be dismissed as insignificant details. But to Morrow they are crucial in establishing a more complete, more accurate picture of the first highly mobilized war effort in modern times.

To develop the aerial force required highly specialized and technical support units. And it was costly -- in terms of resources, labor and lives -- to produce and use highly specialized machines.


Auto Industry Pressed Into Service

The design and manufacture of airplanes and aeroengines was so young that planes and engines were being built by hand, one at a time.

Marc Birkigt, the chief engineer of Hispano-Suiza, a high- quality French aircraft engine manufacturer, designed an innovative V-8, 150-horsepower engine in 1915. During the course of the war, the company created engines with twice as much horsepower. But still, the French needed more such machinery than one embryonic industry could provide.

In 1915 "the French government decided that the automobile industry had to be drawn into aircraft engine production because of the similarity of automobile and aircraft engines," Morrow said. "That's what made the difference. That's how they got both the quality and the quantity of engines."

The French auto industry, second in production only to U.S. automakers, manufactured V-8 and V-12 engines for airplanes. Although they didn't employ the American "assembly line" production -- which had been adopted in U.S. factories before the war -- French auto producers developed and built a variety of aeroengines for the war effort, and most had the power and reliability needed to mount successful air operations.

The French also were willing to experiment in engine design, which led to, among others, Renault's 300-horsepower bomber engine and Hispano-Suiza's 150-horsepower engine, a compact, powerful and light-weight V-8 with a cover that kept the dirt out and had "standardized" parts, a real innovation for the time.

Great Britain and Germany also pressed their car makers into military production of airplane engines, but with less success.

British auto companies at the beginning of the war weren't as successful or as well established as the French. Naval lieutenant W. O. Bentley, who designed the famed Bentley automobiles, redesigned the French Clerget rotary engine using aluminum cylinder heads to increase the horsepower. But overall, "British air engine production shows that they had horrible difficulties throughout the war developing their engines -- with the exception of Rolls-Royce," Morrow said.

Germany's two largest auto makers, Benz and Daimler, which later merged to become Mercedes-Benz, along with a smaller manufacturer, Opel, churned out six-cylinder aircraft engines for the war. In 1917 a new company, Bavarian Motor Works -- today's BMW -- joined the effort, building high-altitude, high-compression engines.

But the Germans were limited by the great difficulty, especially later in the war, of securing raw materials in a nation blockaded by the rest of the world. The scarcity of labor and materials made them reluctant to experiment with new V-12 and V-8 designs; they clung instead to the less-powerful, "in-line," six-cylinder engines that were easier for their mechanics to repair in the field.

The strong, reliable French engines gave a competitive advantage not only to pilots, but to their armies -- by reducing casualties and material losses. So even though fewer numbers of French aviators flew the skies, the French-built engines and airplanes dominated in numbers and technology, Morrow said.


Unlocking the Evidence

Securing all the data and details to draw a complete picture of the European defense industries, nearly four-score years later, was not an easy assignment for a historian. For one thing, World War I was a highly censored war.

War correspondents didn't often witness the fighting at the front lines. Romantic images of aces in aerial tournaments were enhanced by news journalists who fictionalized the war based on second- and third-hand accounts. Consequently, newspaper stories didn't always paint a true picture. Distorted facts and skewed views contributed to the myths that protected the public and untried troops from the graphic horrors of battle.

"Those reporters who did get to see battles were there because a general said they could be there," Morrow said. "And they probably weren't going to see anything the military didn't want reported."

Getting to the truth in published accounts was only part of the problem. Morrow also faced the challenge of obtaining unpublished information compiled by the governments and industries themselves.

To historians, material from these kinds of "primary sources" is the most trustworthy. But with war-related documents, scholars must contend with the fact that most nations' official military documents are classified for 50 to 75 years. Many such documents from World War I only recently were unveiled.

Some German records captured by Allied troops during World War II had not even been catalogued following World War I -- and those were the accessible ones. Others remained off-limits to historians until the Berlin Wall was razed and East Germany ceded its archives.

Even documents that are no longer considered sensitive can be hard to track down. By exchanging favors and information with European researchers, Morrow gained cooperation and access to hard-to-get materials. In Vienna, because an archivist realized his interest and wanted to help, Morrow saw some information that no one had seen since the war.

"Every so often you hit roadblocks along the way," Morrow said. "You know there's material you don't see, too. When I started researching in Germany, they suggested that a lot of the material had been destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II.

"I visited a whole series of different archives and got enough material to piece together the narrative. So even though I don't have it all, I can write with confidence about the accuracy," he said.

It is with confidence that Morrow also dispels another myth of World War I: that air combat casualties were lighter than casualties of ground troops.

In fact, Morrow's figures show that aviators and air wing personnel often suffered devastating losses as well, sometimes exceeding the 50 percent casualties incurred in some ground battles.

"There were times during certain battles that the French air arm suffered 70 percent casualties of its engaged flyers," he said. "Probably between 40 percent and 50 or more percent fell casualty in some way or another during the war. That's a high toll and a clear indication that they certainly paid the price equal to that of the infantry."

One reason for the high level of casualties is the low level of training most pilots received. It was not uncommon for World War I aerialists to take to the skies with as little as 15 hours of flight instruction.

"If you're going to go into combat with 15 hours flying time, it doesn't take someone else to kill you. You are perfectly capable of killing yourself, all by yourself, by crashing," Morrow said.

Nonetheless, many of the lessons learned in the air war three-quarters of a century ago still dictate the rules of the game in today's high-tech battle for air supremacy, Morrow said. Aerial encounters are still won or lost with altitude, maneuverability, accuracy and the element of surprise.

The division of labor among military pilots that emerged early in World War I also has remained virtually unchanged, according to Morrow. Fighters pilots still engage in aerial warfare and ground strafing; observation and reconnaissance craft still carry cameras and an occasional bomb across enemy lines; and bombers still assist naval and ground operations in addition to executing strategic bombing missions.

Just what other lessons there are to be learned "depends on how you look at history," Morrow said. "Every generation, often every individual, has his or her own perspective on history, and it is influenced by the times.

"Initially, I was very interested in military-industrial relationships because I began researching and writing in the '60s and '70s when military-industrial relationships in this country were very significant," he said. "People were raising major questions about them."

Coincidentally, Morrow was writing his latest book on the world's first air war while the United States was engaged in the most one-sided and technologically advanced air war ever waged -- the war with Iraq.

"Often you have to be careful and give a little time for the gloss to wear off and get a better perception of what did happen -- especially when you've waged an extremely victorious campaign," Morrow said.

After sifting through the nearly forgotten data of World War I air power, Morrow may have a better perception of what did happen in The War To End All Wars. If there is a single lesson to be learned, it is this:

"War in reality is a business," he said, "a cruel business."

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