100 years ago: Air power and the battle for Vimy Ridge

News Article / April 7, 2017

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One hundred years ago, on April 9, the Battle of Vimy Ridge began. This extraordinary victory is viewed by many as a vital milestone in the development of Canada’s identity as a sovereign and independent nation. To mark this milestone in Canadian history, commemorative events will be held at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France and the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

By Major Bill March 

The engagement, part of the larger Battle of Arras (April 9 to May 16, 1917), took place from Easter Monday on April 9 to April 12 and resulted in the decisive defeat of the German defenders. The first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Corps had fought together, Vimy Ridge has become a potent symbol of Canadian nationalism, albeit at the cost of over 10,000 casualties (3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded).

The savagery of the fighting and the bravery of the combatants on the ground were matched by the war in the air. For the men of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) – and there were many Canadians among them – this was the start of “Bloody April”.

As was (and is) often the case, the air battle began long before the first soldier went over the top. The most potent weapon during the First World War was artillery and it came to rely heavily upon aerial observation and photographs. In the months leading up to the attack on Vimy Ridge, corps squadrons – those air units tasked to provide direct reconnaissance support to a specific army or corps (the Canadian Corps was part of the British First Army) – were in the air whenever the weather permitted, photographing and re-photographing German positions.

Locating enemy artillery batteries was of primary importance so they could be neutralized on the day of the attack. At Vimy Ridge, the bulk of the work fell to the RFC’s 16 Squadron, flying B.E.2s, a two-seater biplane. It is estimated that by early March aerial photographs had been taken of all of the German defensive positions and that 180 of 212 hostile batteries had been located and their coordinates plotted on Allied maps.1 During the actual battle, corps aircraft would fly in support of the “shoots” meant to destroy or neutralize hostile batteries by providing near-real time corrections and photographing the results (what we now call battle damage assessment).

Needless to say, the Germans strove strenuously to deny the Allies the use of this aerial “high-ground” in much the same way as the RFC and RNAS attempted to “blind” the German Air Service. Scout or fighter aircraft flew both offensive and defensive patrols. Offensive patrols were designed to either destroy or discourage the enemy’s reconnaissance aircraft (and balloons) from doing their job, while defensive patrols were to protect friendly corps machines. The information being brought back was so important for the preparation of the upcoming offensive that each RFC reconnaissance aircraft was often assigned two scouts to act as close escorts. They flew in conjunction with defensive patrols of four to seven aircraft seeking to intercept the Germans before they could molest the corps aircraft.

If a target to be photographed was deemed important enough, the RFC would do whatever it took to get the image – one mission over the span of two days in late March 1917 resulted in the loss of aircraft and 14 airmen killed or missing; the required information was never obtained.2

During the lead-up to Vimy Ridge, the RFC was going through a period of massive expansion that led to a shortage of squadrons at the front. To help alleviate this deficiency, four RNAS squadrons, Numbers 1, 8 and 10, operating Sopwith triplanes, and No. 3, equipped with Sopwith Pups, were temporarily placed at the disposal of the RFC. All of these squadrons, especially No. 3, which was commanded by Canadian Redford Henry “Red” Mulock of Winnipeg, Manitoba, acquitted themselves well.

RFC aircraft were, for the most part, outclassed by German fighting machines. Where there was relative technical parity, squadrons equipped with either the Nieuport 17 or Sopwith Pup were capable of meeting the Germans on somewhat equal terms. The outcome of a fight often rested with the skill of the aircrew and survival was dictated by where the fight took place and the prevailing wind.

The continued growth, combined with losses at the front, meant many aircrew operating in the skies above the Canadian Corps had minimal training and were often unfamiliar with the aircraft they were flying. As well, the need to support the troops on the ground meant that they often found themselves over enemy territory so that if their machine was damaged in combat, or suffered from not infrequent mechanical difficulty, they ran the risk of not making it back to friendly lines and becoming prisoners of war.

To a great extent this unfortunate outcome was worsened by the prevailing winds that blew from west to east, making it that much more difficult for a flier in trouble to make it to friendly lines. But although were many inexperienced pilots within the German Air Service, there were also experienced “killers” such as Manfred von Richthofen – the “Red Baron” – who took a deadly toll of the Allied airmen during the Battle of Arras.

The expansion of the RFC, and to a lesser extent the RNAS, increased the demand for personnel. Although there were a number of Canadians serving in both flying services, most had come via direct recruitment in North America or through voluntary secondment from the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In an effort to tap into a perceived pool of eager young Canadians, the RFC established a large training organization in Canada in January 1917. In the months following the Battle of Arras, Through the RFC Canada, thousands of Canadians would take to the skies over Europe via the RFCA Canada. But during “Bloody April”, the Allies had to rely on available airmen, regardless of their level of training and experience.

With this in mind it should come as no surprise that in the four days between the start of the RFC’s air campaign on April 4, and the Canadian Corps’ assault on Vimy Ridge on the 9th, that

…seventy-five British aeroplanes fell in action with a loss in personnel of 105 (nineteen killed, thirteen wounded, and seventy-three missing). In addition, there was an abnormally high number of flying accidents in which, in the same period, fifty-six aeroplanes were wrecked and struck off the strength of the squadrons.3

Casualties resulting from accidents were not reported as “combat” losses. To put this into a modern context, a Canadian fighter squadron has approximately 12 aircraft on strength which means that in a four-day period the equivalent of almost 11 modern squadrons were lost. And then the ground battle began…

The officers and men of the Canadian Corps had prepared diligently for the attack. Maps indicating objectives and potential enemy strongpoints had been updated to the very last minute, using the latest aerial photographs obtained at such a high price. Royal Canadian Artillery gunners had practiced with RFC observers to work out procedures and wireless (radio) protocols to engage German batteries and silence them quickly and effectively.

Assaulting bodies of infantry, in addition to their already substantial burden of equipment, carried extra flares and signal panels with which to highlight their positions to friendly aircraft above. This was extremely important. Contact flights, where aircraft were sent to locate the positions of friendly troops, were vital both to provide an accurate picture of what was happening to higher headquarters and to prevent occurrences of “friendly fire”.

But then the “gods of chance” intervened. Although there had been perfect flying weather on April 8, by the time the whistles blew to signal the attack early the following morning, low clouds and a mix of rain and snow showers had restricted aerial activity…on both sides.

Except for brief periods, the lousy weather continued for almost the entire period of the assault on Vimy Ridge. While this made it difficult for 16 Squadron to carry out counter-battery work, it made the need for contact patrols even more important. Flying low over weather-obscured bodies of troops was always dangerous; in the height of battle soldiers on the ground often assumed that low-flying aircraft were hostile and therefore to be shot at. But when aircrew deliberately called attention to themselves with blaring klaxons, they were often met with a fusillade of ground fire rather than a positional flare from friendly troops. The divisional and battalion diaries of the Canadian Corps contain numerous entries noting the presence of, and reports from, these contact flights.

And while the air war may have been relatively quiet at Vimy Ridge, it continued unabated over the Arras battlefield. During this period, Lieutenant Billy Bishop became an Ace while flying a Nieuport 17 with 60 Squadron, RFC (he claimed his fifth victory on April 8, 1917). By the end of the month he would claim total of 17 enemy aircraft destroyed or forced down.

Three more pilots lost today. All good men. Oh how I hate the Huns. They had done in some many of my best friends. I’ll make them pay, I swear.4
William Avery “Billy” Bishop
April 7, 1917

Other Canadian airmen were equally effective, including Lloyd Samuel Breadner of Carleton Place, Ontario, who would become Chief of the Air Staff of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Joseph Fall of Cobble Hill, British Columbia, with No. 3 (Naval) Squadron of the RNAS. Both scored triple victories during an engagement on April 11, 1918.  

Others paid the ultimate price during ferocious air battles. In Bishop’s squadron alone, Canadians C.S. Hall (address unknown) and J.A. Milot of Joliette, Quebec, were killed on the April 7 and 8 respectively. The trials of 60 Squadron continued as it lost 10 of its complement of 18 aircraft from April 14 to 16 (J. Elliott from Winnipeg, Manitoba, was wounded during this period). By the end of “Bloody April”, the British had lost 285 aircraft and 211 aircrew were killed or missing, with another 108 taken prisoner. The number of Canadian aircrew casualties during this period has never been tabulated. The Germans lost 66 aircraft due to combat or flying accident. Richthofen and his squadron accounted for more than a third (89) of British losses.5

From a Canadian air power perspective, the battle for Vimy Ridge could be characterized as the first Canadian “joint” engagement. Encompassing a much larger area than the Vimy Ridge battlefield, the air campaign began long before the initial assault on April 9. Although primarily a land battle, the contributions of the RFC and RNAS were crucial – if not for the ultimate victory than at the very least for reducing the number of casualties to the Canadian Corps.

Aerial reconnaissance enabled advance planning and rehearsal prior to the attack on April 9 and, although limited by weather, made important contributions to the conduct of the engagement – primarily in the realm of command and control. At the same time offensive aerial patrols kept the Germans from enjoying the same advantages. Vimy Ridge is a prime example of the effectiveness of joint operations when air and land power cooperate to achieve a common goal.

As we commemorate Vimy Ridge, it behooves the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces to remember that lesson as well.

 

 

 

1 S.F. Wise, Canadian Airmen and the First World War, Volume 1, The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), 401.

2 H.A. Jones, The War in the Air, Volume 3, Being the Story of the part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force (London: Imperial War Museum, nd, reprint of original published in 1931), 322-4.

3 Ibid., 334-5.

4 Quoted in William Arthur Bishop, Billy Bishop: The Courage of the Early Morning (Markham, Ontario: Thomas Allan Publishers, 2011), 76

5 “The Battle of Arras and ‘Bloody April’ 1917, accessed April 2, 2015, www.wwiaviation.com/Bloody­_April-1917.html.

 

 

 

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