BY HOLLY FISHER
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong
The British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) experienced a clash of old ideals against new realities in the catastrophic fourth month of 1917. Known as “Bloody April”, poor orders and superior enemy technology combined to cause one of the most destructive campaigns the Corps endured during the war.
The RFC embarked on this campaign over the skies of Arras, France, as air support for British ground troops. The Arras offensive was planned in conjunction with the French Nivelle Offensive, both intended to punch holes through firmly established German lines.
Planning officers believed in the strategic power of air support, and thought a vast quantity of planes would ensure air superiority during this crucial battle.
Up to this point, British planes were being created as quickly as possible, and pilots were trained with equal rapidity. This resulted in a great number of under-experienced pilots matched with out-of-date machines.
This struck a particularly problematic cord against German air power. Losses during earlier campaigns had impressed the value of technological superiority on German high command. They knew the most advanced equipment was needed if they were going to win through to victory.
To that end, they had focused heavily on advancing the Luftstreitkräfte, and outfitting it with ever improving weapons and equipment. At the time of the offensive, German equipment outclassed all but the very newest British planes.
The Battle of Arras began on April 9, 1917.
The RFC sent in 25 squadrons, equaling 365 pilots. The bulk of their aerial forces consisted of obsolete models like the Airco DH.2, and the F.E.8.
The Germans began with only 5 squadrons in the area, and their numbers topped out at roughly eighty for the entire offensive. The Germans were operating the top-line Albatros D.II, and D.III planes, which were some of the most dangerous in the skies due to their unique armament of twin machine guns.
The only British planes that could keep up with the German fighters were the SPAD S.VII, and the Sopwith Tripane. However, due to extensive operations all along the front, there were only a few of these models available to the Arras campaign.
Given the small number of their valuable planes, German tactics focused on protecting the pilots and planes by staying over friendly territory, where they could avoid ground fire. This location presented a challenge that RFC commanding officer Hugh Trenchard insisted the British meet. Trechard believed that sheer airpower and British strength would carry the day.
This desire to maintain “fighting spirit”, the idea that numbers and plucky courage combined would ensure victory, cost hundreds of pilots their lives.
The British lost 245 planes during the course of the month, and 319 crewmen were killed or taken as prisoners of war.
Though overall statistics for the war are better, the expectation of life for British pilots during this campaign was a paltry 17 1/2 hours.
However, despite these painfully imbalanced numbers, the British eventually emerged ahead of their rivals. Their willingness to cross enemy lines allowed them to gather the crucial intelligence needed for ground troops to succeed in their offensives.
Despite the abysmal loss of life and machinery, the RFC was able to forge forward and deliver on their orders. In contrast, the German desire to protect their planes led to severe limits on how much they could do within their range. It left many openings for their enemies to exploit, and led to overall Allied progress in the region.
In a great historical irony, the RFC learned the same valuable lesson from defeat that had made the Germans so strong. The side with the best technology would succeed, regardless of the numbers employed.
A few good pilots and planes were worth their weight in gold, and could not be replaced even by hundreds of inferior copies.
This understanding finally gave the Allies the aerial edge, and contributed directly to their eventual victory.