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April 14, 2023

Aerial World War 1 Artifacts from the Dawn of Dogfighting

By Kurt Allemeier

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The sky above the trenches of France was a new frontier as World War 1 opened in 1914, with each side using lumbering, unarmed airplanes for observation, and not for an aerial fight. By the time the armistice was signed four years later the planes flew faster, higher, and were far better armed.

Motorized flight was barely in its second decade, but warfare brings technological change with it, and a number of aerial World War 1 artifacts in Rock Island Auction Company’s May 19-21 Premier Auction reflect the primitiveness these daring young men in their flying machines faced during their aerial fights.

This aerial World War 1 artifact is a canvas section taken from the fuselage of an American 11th Aero squadron bomber by its wartime pilot as a memento. Atop its olive green base coat is a large numeral five with the unit’s logo, and the famous comic strip character of the time, Mr. Jiggs, carrying a bomb under his arm. Mr. Jiggs’ creator, George McManus, served in the 11th Aero Squadron during World War 1. The 11th Aero remains in operation today as the U.S. Air Force’s 11th Bomb Squadron assigned to Barksdale Air Force Base.

First in Flight, First to Fight

Planes were first used to bomb the enemy during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912 but proved to be ineffective. By the time of World War I, most military leaders were still uncertain of the role of aircraft. Balloons and dirigibles had been use in the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian War for observation.

That remained the primary role of airplanes as World War 1 started, reporting troop movements and directing artillery rather than taking on an aerial fight. A British Royal Flying Corps plane spotted German troops preparing to lay siege to Paris in August 1914, but alerted French and British military leaders who were able to get their troops into position to outflank the Germans in the Battle of the Marne, a key early victory.

While planes became faster, quicker, and more deadly, their pilots still got lost. Planes could often be seen following train tracks and flying low enough for pilots to read signs on railway stations to figure out where they were.

World War 1 aircraft were fairly primitive, with canvas covering a wooden frame. The propellers were also wood. Here are a trio of aerial World War 1 artifacts. At top is this eight-foot tall propeller for the famous Curtiss JN-3 Jenny. The Jenny was a trainer during World War 1 and flew the first U.S. Mail in May 1918. It was a popular airplane during the barnstorming era of the 1920s. Center is a propeller with metal edge wrappings made by American Propeller and Manufacturing Company of Baltimore. The company made more than 75 percent of all propellers used by American flying forces in World War 1. This 10-foot long propeller was likely used on a Curtiss Flying Boat. At bottom is an eight foot-long dark-stained propeller with metal tips that bears Signal Corps markings.

Early in the war, opposing pilots would give each other friendly waves as they went about their reconnaissance missions, but once they realized they didn’t want the other side to observe what was going on behind their lines, the aerial fight began, at first with pistols and carbines. Machine guns proved to be trickier.

When the war opened, many planes were “pushers,” with the engines behind the pilot and the propeller pushing the plane. A machine gun could be mounted for the observer. When designers started building airplanes with the engine in front – called “tractors,” shooting could be much more accurate if it weren’t for the propeller. The problem of how to mount a gun that can shoot through the propeller had to be solved.

Airplane Problem and the Solution

French flyer Roland Garros (for whom the tennis complex where the French Open is held is named) tried to tackle the problem of forward mounting machine guns in 1915. He and an engineer from a French aircraft company installed an interrupter gear on Garros’ plane that would regulate the machine gun’s fire to pass between the spinning propeller blades. The system could get out of sync so they fitted metal deflectors to the propeller to protect it from stray bullets. Most bullets passed through the propeller arc, but a few were still expected to hit the propeller.

Garros was able to shoot down three German planes over the course of about three weeks with the benefit of the interrupter system in April 1915. Late in the month, ground fire brought Garros down behind enemy lines. He was captured along with his aircraft and its interrupter system. The Germans shared the technology with Dutch airplane designer Anthony Fokker.

Fokker, who designed planes for the Germans, fine-tuned a synchronization system that gave the Germans a decided advantage in the aerial fight from mid-1915 into 1916, a time known as the “Fokker scourge.”

These aerial World War 1 artifacts are cut-away segments of aircraft canvas. At the center is a cross insignia used by the German Luftstreitkraefte in World War 1 and appears to be from a downed Albatross D.III biplane. This segment of canvas was formerly in the inventory of the Mountfitchet Castle Museum in Essex, England. The canvas segment on the left shows the balkenkreuz, a straight-armed cross introduced late in World War 1 that went on to be the emblem of the German military during World War 2. The segment on the right is the back of the segment from the upper left that is in a double-sided frame.

Flying Aces

The French coined the term “l’as” or “aces” for a pilot who shot down five or more planes, with these dashing men becoming heroes and celebrities. The most successful aces also flew the best planes where handling, rate of climb, airspeed, and armament came into play.

Manfred von Richthofen, aka “the Red Baron,” recorded the most victories in the aerial fight with 80, though most of those came against observation or reconnaissance planes. Eddie Rickenbacker recorded 26 aerial victories for the United States that didn’t enter the war until 1917.

Here are two aerial World War 1 artifacts that show what pilots of the World War 1 era wore in the aerial fight. The long leather coat became a symbol of a new breed of warrior – the fighter pilot. The coat is marked C.H. Tripp that may be Lt. Claude Henry Tripp of the Royal Flying Corps who served in the No. 48 Squadron that posted in France in March 1917. The leather flight helmet is identified to Lt. Howard F. Rough of the U.S. 638th Aero Squadron late in World War 1. Made by the Spalding sporting goods company, the helmet has a roundel on top and the yellow “V” and black cat insignia of the 638th Aero Squadron on the front and back. Rough went on to serve as a U.S. aviation government official for 25 years. His wife Helen was an aviation pioneer as one of the first woman flyers to earn a transport pilot’s license and set national and world speed and altitude records, and also flew as a barnstormer.

Upper Hand in the Aerial Fight

Improved aircraft and expanded British and French squadrons allowed them to regain air superiority over the Germans in 1916, but the Germans would regain the upper hand in 1917. That year, the British suffered four times more casualties than the Germans.

The Germans took the idea of using large planes as bombers from the Russians. The German Gotha bomber was developed late World War 1 and was enormous for its time, with a wingspan of nearly 78 feet and capable of carrying 350 lbs. of bombs. The Germans used Zeppelins along with bombers, to target logistics and manufacturing in England. The missions killed civilians and created more terror than physical destruction.

This massive aerial World War 1 artifact is a propeller attributed to the German Gotha bomber. The plane had two engines, measured more than 44 feet in length and a wingspan of almost 78 feet, standing 14 feet tall so the 12-feet long propeller fits with the plane's size. These bombers dropped 83 tons of ordnance on England.

Aerial Fight of the Future

World War 1’s aerial fight showed that aircraft were the weapon of the future. Allied bombers were flying in group formations to bomb German munitions plants, and both sides came together for large air battles that showed the importance of air superiority in World War 2, especially in the Battle of Britain as England fought alone early in the war.

Items like propellers, flight coats, and pieces will be on offer in Rock Island Auction Company’s May 19-21 Premier Auction. These are aerial World War 1 artifacts that  acknowledge the past of World War 1 fighter aces and the unproven use of planes as a weapon of war, and also serve as a nod to the rapid change in technology in just over 100 years that led from prop-driven, canvas-covered bi-planes to fighter jets, to the creation of the Space Force.

Major General William Lacy Kenly served as the Chief of the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Force. An artilleryman by training, he qualified as a pilot prior to World War 1. He returned to the United States to become Director of Military Aeronautics in 1918, leading the newly established United States Army Air Service. Rock Island Auction is offering aerial World War 1 artifacts of Kenly’s in the May Premier Auction, including a miniature ribbon bar with nine ribbons, including the Distinguished Service Medal and French Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor as well as a number of small buttons and papers.


Evolution of Fighter Planes during World War 1, by Utkarsh Chaudhary

The Sky Was the Limit – Aviation in World War 1, The Great War

How Airplanes were used in World War 1, by Dave Roos,

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