Classic History Books

William J. Claxton - The Mastery of the Air

fighter was evolved. Nobly, too, did the men of all nations rise to these heroic and dangerous
opportunities. The Germans were the first to boast of the exploits of their fighting airmen, and to us in

Britain the names of Immelmann and Bolcke were known long before those of any of our own fighters.

The former claimed not far short of a hundred victims before he was at last brought low in June, 1916.

His letters to his family were published soon after his death, and do not err on the side of modesty.

On 11th August, 1915, he writes: "There is not much doing here. Ten minutes after Bolcke and I go up,
there is not an enemy airman to be seen. The English seem to have lost all pleasure in flying. They come

over very, very seldom."

When allowance has been made for German brag, these statements throw some light upon the standard of
British flying at a comparatively early date in the war. Certainly no German airman could have made any

such complaint a year later. In 1917 the German airmen were given all the fighting they required and a

bit over.

Certainly a very different picture is presented by the dismal letters which Fritz sent home during the great
Ypres offensive of August, 1917. In these letters he bewails the fact that one after another of his batteries

is put out of action owing to the perfect "spotting" of the British airmen, and arrives at the sad conclusion

that Germany has lost her superiority in the air.

An account has already been given of the skill and prowess of Captain Ball. On his own count - and he
was not the type of man to exaggerate his prowess - he found he had destroyed fifty machines, although

actually he got the credit for forty-one. This slight discrepancy may be explained by the scrupulous care

which is taken to check the official returns. The air fighter, though morally certain of the destruction of a

certain enemy aeroplane, has to bring independent witnesses to substantiate his claim, and when out "on

his own" this is no easy matter. Without this check, though occasionally it acts harshly towards the pilot,

there might be a tendency to exaggerate enemy losses, owing to the difficulty of distinguishing between

an aeroplane put out of action and one the pilot of which takes a sensational "nose dive" to get out of


One of the most striking illustrations of the growth of the aeroplane as a fighting force is afforded by the
great increase in the heights at which they could scout, take photographs, and fight. In Sir John French's

dispatches mention is made of bomb-dropping from 3000 feet. In these days the aerial battleground has

been extended to anything up to 20,000 feet. Indeed, so brisk has been the duel between gun and

aeroplane, that nowadays airmen have often to seek the other margin of safety, and can defy the

anti-aircraft guns only by flying so low as just to escape the ground. The general armament of a "fighter"

consists of a maxim firing through the propeller, and a Lewis gun at the rear on a revolving gun-ring.

It is pleasant to record that the Allies kept well ahead of the enemy in their use of aerial photography.
Before a great offensive some thousands of photographs had to be taken of enemy dispositions by means

of cameras built into the aeroplanes.

Plates were found to stand the rough usage better than films, and not for the first time in the history of
mechanics the man beat the machine, a skilful operator being found superior to the ingenious automatic

plate-fillers which had been devised.

The counter-measure to this ruthless exposure of plans was camouflage. As if by magic-tents, huts,
dumps, guns began, as it were, to sink into the scenery. The magicians were men skilled in the use of

brush and paint-pot, and several leading figures in the world of art lent their services to the military


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