Introduction

On the last day of March 1917, Rittmeister Manfred Von Richtofen took delivery of a new aircraft.  Its designer gave his creation the name of a high-soaring bird: the Albatros. With twin machine-guns, it had greater firepower than any aircraft in the Royal Flying Corps, and the Germans would deploy their new weapon with deadly effect in the skies above Arras. Von Richtofen would become one of the most famous aces of the war, known as the 'Red Baron'.

The Development of Air Combat

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, military aviation was in its infancy. The British had formed the Royal Flying Corps in 1912, and the Royal Naval Air Service in early 1914, with aeroplanes that were unreliable, expensive and fragile.

In the early battles of the war their role was reconnaissance, but as the trench lines of the Western Front were formed, observation for artillery became crucial. The development of aerial photography meant that enemy lines could be scouted from above, but observation balloons and slow reconnaissance aircraft were vulnerable. Pilots on both sides began to pursue and attack their enemies with pistols, machine guns and bombs. Soon, duelling aircraft became a common site above the Western Front.

In the summer of 1915 the tentative balance that had existed between the opposing sides was broken when the German manufacturer Fokker perfected a French design enabling front-mounted machine guns to fire through an aircraft’s propellers. This technological advantage resulted in what British airmen referred to as the ‘Fokker scourge’. The British countered by concentrating their aircraft in large numbers. By the Somme Offensive in 1916, the RFC had grown to over 42,000 personnel, including ground crew and staff, and wrestled back control of the skies.

Bloody April

The RFC's success during the Battle of the Somme came at a high price. Over 250 airmen had been killed, and the British were lagging far behind in the development and construction of new aircraft. By early 1917, with another major offensive at Arras about to begin, the RFC still heavily outnumbered the Germans, but with many aircraft that were old and almost obsolete. Many of its pilots were inexperienced replacements for the casualties of 1916.

RAF SE5a fighter aircraft at Clairmarais, near Ypres, 1918

IWM Q 12063

The German flyers used new tactics, creating 'hunting squadrons' called 'Jastas'. Using their superior aircraft, they inflicted heavy losses on their RFC counterparts. The German ace Manfred Von Richtofen gained his famous nickname 'The Red Baron' during April 1917, when he shot down 20 British aircraft.

By the end of April, the British had lost 250 aircraft, and some 400 aircrew had become casualties. Nevertheless, they had played a vital role at Arras, flying nearly 20,000 sorties to maintain the crucial reconnaissance.

After April 1917

Advances in design and industrial production eventually provided new planes for the RFC, including the S.E.5a, Sopwith Camel, and the French-built Spad. In April 1918, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service merged to create the Royal Air Force.

By this time, the war in the air was being fought by advanced aeroplanes operating in large formation. The RAF eventually grew to some 4,000 front-line aircraft and over 100,000 personnel. Although the flying services continued to suffer heavy casualties in 1918, 'Bloody April' would remain the most infamous period of the conflict for flyers.