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06 min 53 s
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information
The first section of this clip shows pilots boarding a RE8 aircraft (RE for Reconnaissance Experimental). It is followed by shots of other biplanes taking off and flying directly over the camera. A close-up shows a RE8 taxiing away from the viewer and taking off. The following segment features images of Curtis Jennies in flight, filmed from the ground and the air. We then see a close-up of a pilot at the controls of a Sopwith Camel, followed by a brief image of the aircraft’s airspeed indicator. Following this is footage of a Short 225 floatplane coming in for a landing in a British harbour, and a sequence showing biplanes in flight.
The grainy footage depicts a German ground crew loading bombs onto an aircraft, followed by images of bombs being dropped from a flying aircraft and exploding in open country. Shots of soldiers examining ruins are followed by a shot of a German aircraft being pursued by flak puffs.
The next section shows various plane crashes. A shot of a crashed airplane, with men collecting debris, is followed by a shot of a downed German fighter plane. A ground-to-air shot of an aircraft spiralling downward is followed by images of the downed plane in flames.
The final segment starts with shots of pilots, followed by an image of a crashed Sopwith Camel, a line-up of Camels on the ground, and a sequence showing US army personnel, identifiable from their hats, fitting bombs onto an aircraft.
The RE8 was a two-seater multi-purpose biplane with forward and rear-firing machine guns. It was introduced in 1916 and used in artillery observation and night bombing. More than 4,000 Harry Tates — as they were commonly known — were built during the war.
The Sopwith Camel was one of many wartime aircraft with rotary engines, where the entire engine revolves, not just the crankshaft. The key advantage was that they were lightweight — rotary engines did not require carburettors, throttles or bulky radiators necessary in liquid-cooled engines. Thus they were agile but somewhat unstable. Although used extensively throughout the war, rotary engine-powered aircraft had no commercial application and very few were made after the First World War.
In general, aeronautic technology developed more rapidly during the war than ever before. Between 1914 and 1918, the average horsepower of plane engines increased from 80 to 350 horsepower, and aircraft speed almost doubled, from 110 to 200 km per hour. Engineering advances had greatly diminished the risks of flying, and as the war ended, experts and laypeople alike looked to aircraft and air travel with a new confidence and enthusiasm.
Pieces of History
The First Air War
Hugh A. Halliday
Historian and author
During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) experts noted that smokeless powder, rifled artillery, machine guns and barbed wire had turned battlefields into vast wastelands where armies hid from their opponent’s shells. Cavalry—the traditional form of reconnaissance—could not manoeuvre . Ten years later, aircraft made stalemate even more certain. In August 1914 aerial reconnaissance enabled the Allies to counter-attack against German armies invading France. Thereafter, with few exceptions, aerial observers forecast an enemy’s offensive and thus assured its failure (or success, at appalling cost).
The power of aerial observation went further. With armies driven into complex trench systems, artillery came to the fore as the deadliest weapon of the war. The great guns of the Western Front were the primary killing machines of what had become industrialized warfare—65 percent of all deaths and wounds were attributable to artillery fire, which delivered awesome weights of shell and shrapnel.
Days before his death by artillery fire, an American soldier wrote, “This is a cowering war—pygmy man huddles in little holes and caves, praying to escape the blows of the blind giant who pounds the ground with blind hammers.” But the hammers were not blind. Their targets were mapped by men in aircraft and balloons, their fire was directed from aircraft and balloons. The aerial observer was the most important airman of the war; his role today has been assumed by others, including the aerial spy satellite.
The courage of these men defies imagination. Balloon observers ascended under gas bags filled with flammable hydrogen, vulnerable to fighter aircraft determined to shoot them down. The men in the balloons at least had parachutes, if time permitted them to escape. For most of the war, pilots and airplane crews had no such equipment; fire in the air was the most dreaded fate of all, and many men carried pistols to shoot themselves rather than suffer agonizing deaths. In June 1918 German aircrews were issued parachutes; even these failed to deploy about 25 percent of the time.
Given the importance of aerial reconnaissance and artillery direction, it is puzzling to find so much attention being devoted to fighter pilots, these “knights of the air.” Fighter pilots and tactics evolved from 1915 onwards, but their task was always secondary to that of the observation crews. It was a fighter pilot’s job to shoot down enemy observation aircraft and protect his own observation aircraft. Nevertheless, propagandists trying to divert attention from the awful slaughter on the ground fastened upon the fighter pilots as men engaged in single combat, man-to-man, with the high-scoring “ace” as the centrepiece of the narrative. Never mind that the fighter pilot’s objective was (preferably) to surprise an opponent and shoot him in the back. Chivalry there might be—a decent burial for a fallen enemy, a toast with a captured foe—but in the heat of battle there could be only one rule: kill or be killed. At the heart of everything else, that was a fighter pilot’s job description. It is a measure of the propagandist’s success that, 90 years later, the public knows more about the First World War fighter pilots than the men they were actually protecting.
Airplanes were used for many other tasks—anti-submarine patrols, trench strafing, communications and bombing. Indeed, aircraft performed almost every task in the First World War that they would later execute in the Second World War. The one exception was the aerial delivery of soldiers. Even so, aircraft were used to place spies behind enemy lines and drop supplies to isolated troops. Nevertheless, in most roles the airplanes of 1914-1918 only hinted at what was to come. Only one submarine was sunk by aircraft during the First World War; at least 400 submarines on all sides were destroyed by aircraft during the Second World War. Aerial bombing between 1914 and 1918 inflicted only modest devastation (although its psychological impact was very great at the outset); the bombing campaigns of the Second World War were horrific both in physical impact and subsequent moral outrage.
Aircraft affected the conduct of the war, and war influenced the technological development of aircraft. For example, engines increased from an average of 80 horsepower (1914) to 350 horsepower (1918), while speeds of 110 km/h had risen to about 200 km/h. Yet if the war had not taken place, it is conceivable that commercial incentives might have produced similar results. The first four-engine airliner had flown in Russia in 1913. Might not development have taken place along civilian lines ? Five years later, France and Britain initiated civilian air transport services using modified bombers that carried fewer passengers than their Russian predecessors of 1913.
Whether or not it was due to war, a radical transformation occurred between 1914 and 1918 that involved the attitudes of aviators themselves. Even among the select circle of 1914 pilots, flying was considered hazardous,, and training methods reflected this. At the time, no aircraft had been designed specifically for training; throughout the war most training aircraft were machines like the RE.7 and Farman Shorthorn, which had been retired from front-line duties to rear echelon tasks. The Curtiss JN-4 broke this pattern.
The most radical change, however, involved the training syllabus itself. Early flying instruction covered the basics of flying but emphasized dangers to be avoided, particularly stalls and spins. By 1916, however, the dynamics of flight controls were more fully understood, and recovery from spins could be practised. New systems of instruction emphasized the theory of flight and explained exactly how manoeuvres could be executed, thus encouraging intelligent aerobatics. Instead of being regarded as a threatening mount, the airplane came to be seen as an even-tempered, reasonable machine. Previously, students had been taught what to avoid; the new methods instilled confidence. By the end of the war, pilots had become enthusiastic about the potential uses of aircraft and convinced of the fundamental safety of their machines. Confident prophets inspire confident converts.
Canada’s role in these developments was insignificant in some ways, crucial in others. Before the war the government studiously ignored aviation, and only in 1918 did it take steps to form distinct Canadian air force units. On the other hand, it assisted the British flying services, which recruited in Canada and trained personnel in this country. Thousands of Canadians enlisted in the British flying services, either directly or by transferring from the Canadian Expeditionary Force. No one really knows just how many joined; the lowest estimate (13,160) seems too modest, but the highest guess (22,812) cannot be documented. It is generally believed that, as of 1918, about one-quarter of all members of the Royal Air Force were Canadians. The most famous were aces such as Raymond Collishaw and William Barker, but they included many other fascinating individuals. In 1915, Redford Mulock had been a trooper transferring from the cavalry to the Royal Naval Air Service. As of November 1918, he was a decorated colonel commanding heavy bombers that would have raided Berlin if the war had lasted only two weeks longer.
Chajkowsky, William E. Royal Flying Corps; Borden to Texas to Beamsville. Cheltenham, ON: Boston Mills Press, 1979.
Costello, W. Brian. A Nursery of the Air Force. Carleton Place, ON: Forest Beauty Products, 1979.
Dodds, Ronald. The Brave Young Wings. Stittsville, ON: Canada's Wings, 1980.
Drew, George. Canada's Fighting Airmen. Toronto: Maclean Publishing, 1931.
Ellis, Frank H. Canada's Flying Heritage. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1954.
Fuller, G.A., J.A. Griffin and K.A. Molson. 125 Years of Canadian Aeronautics: A Chronology,1840-1965. Toronto: Canadian Aviation Historical Society, 1983.
Goodspeed, D. J. The Armed Forces of Canada,1867-1967. Ottawa: Canadian Forces Headquarters, 1967.
Greenhous, Brereton. The Making of Billy Bishop. Toronto: Dundern Group, 2002.
Greenhous, Brereton and Hugh A. Halliday. Canada’s Air Forces,1914-1999. Montreal: Art Global, 1999.
Halliday , Hugh A. Not in the Face of the Enemy: Canadians Awarded the Air Force Cross and Air Force Medal,1918-1966. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2000.
Jones, Neville. The Origins of Strategic Bombing. London: William Kimber, 1973.
Milberry, Larry. Aviation in Canada. Toronto: Canav Books, 1979.
---. Canada’s Air Force at War and Peace. 3 vol. Toronto: Canav Books, 1999 to 2001.
Rimell, Raymond Laurence. Zeppelin! A Battle for Air Supremacy in World War I. Stittsville, ON: Canada's Wings, 1984.
Shores, Christopher, Norman Franks and Russell Guest. Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces, 1915-1920. Stoney Creek, ON: Fortress Publications, 1990.
Sullivan, Alan. Aviation in Canada,1917-1918. Toronto: Rous and Rous, 1919.
Wise, S.F. Canadian Airmen and the First World War. Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1982.
The following Web site has a section "Honours and Awards" and a subsection dealing with Canadians in the British Flying Services during the First World War: http://www.airforce.ca/.
Films : Observation Balloons, Fighter Planes, Airplane Casualties
Background Notes for the Teacher
At the beginning of World War I, the airplane was used for reconnaissance. It had a top speed of about 120 km/h and was not equipped with ammunition. By the end of the war, bombers could reach speeds over 275 km/h and carried up to 3 tons of explosives.
A pilot needed to be able to do more than fly an airplane and fire artillery. He was required to read maps, take aerial photographs, make meteorological observations, assess enemy capabilities and communicate using a wireless telegraph system. Pilots faced many hardships in their open cockpits. Rain and cold made flying at high altitudes very uncomfortable. Sunlight could be blinding and it was difficult to distinguish between Allied and enemy planes even in the best of conditions.
Two of Canada’s most decorated fighter pilots were Billy Bishop and Billy Barker. Bishop was credited with 72 confirmed victories while Barker destroyed 50 enemy planes. A pilot was classified as an “ace” if he shot down five enemy aircraft.
From the 1870s until the 1940s, tobacco companies issued trading cards to help sell their product. Baseball players, airplanes and war heroes were some of the trading card subjects. This marked the beginning of the trading card industry.
Introducing the Subject
Discuss how the military uses planes today (reconnaissance, bombing, troop and equipment deployment).
Study a picture of an airplane from World War I.
Would this aircraft have been capable of transporting troops and supplies?
Teaching and Learning
View film footage and have students identify some of the ways that planes were used by Allied forces.
Together, list other functions not shown in the footage.
Discuss the challenges of flying in an open cockpit.
Applying the Knowledge
Students can research a famous Canadian World War I pilot (e.g. Billy Bishop, Billy Barker, Raymond Collishaw, D.R. MacLaren) or one of the planes used by the CEF.
Provide students with some background information on the history of the tobacco card. Ask them to design their own trading card highlighting what they have learned about their topic.
Were students able to trace the evolution of the airplane during World War I?
Did they recognize the courage required to be an aviator?