Thursday, April 21, 2016

Night Fighter History - World War I

It's so dark out over the countryside. The stars and a waning half moon provide the only illumination as the pilot strains his eyes to pick out familiar features. He's cold, even with the thick layers wrapped around him. Scattered clouds skud by below his fragile B.E.2c, reflecting moonlight back at him, and threatening to obscure what little reference points he has. 
There! He finally sees it, a series of canvas squares and circles laid out in a pre-arranged pattern that every member of the night fliers must have memorized. He can't quite make it out yet, but hopes that it tells him simply to keep patrolling, that the coast listeners haven't heard one of the Hun's lethal silver airships trying to slip by onto English soil. 
AIRSHIP SPOTTED, PATROL TOWARDS LONDON! The pattern reads. As the pilot turns his plane towards the English capital, he pulls his biplane into a climb. German Zepplins fly high, and his B.E.2c, with it's 90hp V-8, will need all the altitude he can get from it should he be fortunate enough to spot the German airship. 
Around London, searchlights snap on, probing the sky like blind fingers, searching the night for danger. They find nothing. The pilot gives them plenty of room, knowing that to be illuminated by them will destroy his night vision for much too long, and perhaps even worse, some of the gunners on the ground are none too choosy about their targets. How a tiny B.E.2c, or any single-engined aircraft, really, could be mistaken for one of the huge German airships was a question he couldn't imagine an answer to, and yet both he and several of his fellow pilots had come back from sorties with holes in their aircraft whose only possible explanation was friendly fire. 
The searchlights continue their hunt for a time, as does the pilot, but no cigar-shaped menace ever appears. Perhaps it was blown off course and aborted its mission, or perhaps the coastal listening posts made a mistake. The pilot will never know, nor does he particularly care. His supply of petrol is almost burned, and he must try to find his way back to his home airfield, lest he be forced to land in an unfamiliar spot, in the dark, with no way of knowing how well he has selected a landing field until his wheels touch the ground. 
He should be near the airfield by know, he knows it. The stopwatch and compass he rely on agree, but he can see nothing down below. Is his navigation wrong? No, there, almost directly off his left wing, the aerodrome crews are finally setting alight the barrels that outline a rough J pattern for a runway. 
He lines his aircraft up with the open end of the 'J', reduces power, and pulls a string in the cockpit. Near the tailskid, a flare burns to life, gradually illuminating the ground rising slowly towards him. The flare burns out, and he lights another one, night vision no longer mattering nearly so much as simply getting safely back on the ground. 
A solid thump rattles him in his seat as the B.E.2c's main wheels hit the ground. The tailskid follows quickly, the dying light of the flare becoming lost as the aircraft settles back to earth. He follows the line of flaming barrels back to the aircraft line and shuts down the engine. Ground personnel rush over to help him out of the cockpit, one handing him a small flask of brandy to help warm up again. 

Last week, I said I might start a series about Night Fighters, inspired by my feelings that they're a seriously under-recognized part of military aviation history. This week, I'm starting that series at the beginning, with the night fighters of World War I. 
Much as they would be in twenty-five years later, World War I night fighters were born primarily to serve a defensive role. As German airships menaced the British homeland, demands were made for an aerial defense. The aircraft of the day were severely underpowered, navigation aids were non-existent, and weapons that could damage the enemy airships were sorely lacking. 
Still, valiant efforts were made, efforts which unfortunately proved far more costly to the men making them than to the German airship crews. Aircraft were lost. To friendly fire, to disorientation and crashes, and most commonly of all, on landing. 
Eventually, solutions to most of these problems were found. The motley collection of aircraft used at the start were replaced, first by the B.E.2c armed with a Lewis gun loaded with incendiary ammunition, and aimed to fire at an upwards 45° angle; and later by modified Sopwith Camels mounting two over-wing Lewis guns and with the pilot's cockpit moved rearward twelve inches to allow for easier reloading. 
Landings were improved both by the marking of landing zones with burning barrels or fires lit by ground personnel when aircraft neared, and by the development of the Holt flare. Carried under the wings or near the tail, Holt flares helped the pilot illuminate the ground as he got closer, giving him a good idea of when to flare and land. 
Germany too, began using fighters to intercept the night-time bombing raids coming at the end of the war. A few attempts at night attacks, particularly over No Man's Land were also made, with limited success. 
At the end of the war, military interest in night fighting decreased significantly. While major advances in instrument flying, blind navigation, and other useful innovations were developed, scant attention would be paid to their application for nighttime fighting until nearly the next war. 

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