AVIATION AT WAR
Tau Beta Pi
University of Maryland
College Park, - - - Maryland
September 4, 1942
Hugo G-. Sheridan, Jr.
Today, aviation is playing an important part in the
battle for democracy and freedom. Yet the first successful
"balloon ascension took place only a little over two hundred
and fifty years ago, and it was not until the "beginning of
the twentieth century that man conquered the air with the
heavier than air craft.
Scarcely less than a week had elapsed after Rozier
made his famous "balloon ascension before it was suggested
that it be used in warfare. The balloon was given several
trials in war during the nineteenth century but with little
success. It was not until the first World War that the use-
fulness of the balloon became apparent. Closely coupled
with the balloon is the rigid airship. Ko other person in
history was more closely connected to the military develop-
ment of the dirigible than Count Zeppelin of the German
army. It was through his efforts that the dirigible reached
its highest stage of development, and it was only because of
the fact of the high inflammability of hydrogen that led to
its eventual downfall.
The first large scale development of heavier than air
craft was brought on by World War I. It was during this war
that the military value of the airplane was fully realized.
Both sides were quick to adapt the airplane, and through their
efforts it developed rapidly and was, destined to have a great
bearing on military tactics. This has been amply demonstrated
by Hitler in his use of military tactics, mobility, and speed
in which the airplane has played a major role.
This thesis attempts to trace the history of aircraft
in warfare and to show the influence that each has had one
upon the other.
Hugo G. Sheridan, Jr.
AVIATION AT WAR
War, perhaps more than any other factor* has influenced
the development of aviation. And aviation in turn has had its
effect on the art of waging war. It was through the desires
of nations to produce a weapon more formidable than their
enemies that men were able to obtain the funds necessary to
make the rapid advancement that was made during war time.
We are witnesses to the fact that aviation is the greatest
single development in creating total war and making it not
a war of armies but a war of peoples.
Shortly after the historic balloon ascension in 17B.3
of Francois de Rozier, who was the first human being to rise
from the earth, Girond de Villette proposed that the bal-
loon could be adapted to war for the use of reconnaissance.
However, Villette was unable to convince Prance of his idea,
and nothing was done. It was not until the outbreak of the
French Revolution and the wars which followed that the bal-
loon was actually given a trial in warfare. It was used
against the Austrians by the French in 1794 with what was
recorded as a great success. After the defeat of Napoleon
Bonaparte, however, no further attempts were made to use
the balloon in warfare until it was revived by Napoleon III
in 1859, He used it in the Italian campaign where the bal-
loon had little, if any, A on the outcome of the battles in
which it was used. The outbreak of the American War Between
the States provided the first large scale adaptation of the
military balloon. Most of the work was done by Thaddeus
S. C. Lowe in the employ of the Union forces. The Union
side did practically all of the aerial observation, al-
though the Confederates did, on a few occasions, use bal-
loons in battle. However, the use of balloons was aban-
doned by both sides after 1862 because of the difficulties
Although the balloon was recognized by the leading na-
tions of the world in 1883 as valuable in warfare, it was not
until the first World War that the balloon was really devel-
oped as a military asset. The Germans built their balloons
in long cylindrical shapes, popularly known as sausage bal-
loons. On this balloon the Germans devised a successful
method for stabilizing them. It consisted of a pair of small
sails and a large inflated bag placed in the rear which acted
as a rudder and kept the nose of the balloon in the wind.
This type was followed by other types, the best being the
Gaquot balloon. It was more stable than the sausage balloon
and was soon adopted by both sides of the conflict. While
they were used for observation and direction of artillery fire,
they were also used to combat the submarine menace around the
British Isles. During the air raids against England they
were used by the English in combatting the bombers. Also in
the present World War the balloon barrages have played an im-
portant part in the defense of English cities against German
bombing attacks. However, in the present war the airplane
has taken the place of the balloon for the purpose of aerial
Up until the time of World War I the rigid airship or
dirigible was never used in warfare. Although work had been
done on the rigid airship, it was not until the time of Count
Zeppelin that the dirigible reached its highest peak of suc-
cess. Zeppelin and his associates constructed 120 success-
ful airships, 72 of which were used by the Germans in the first
World War. They were often used in raids in the North Sea
against English shipping. The few raids that were made
against English cities while they did not do great material
damage did have great effect on the morale of the population.
The great stresses set up in the structures and the limited
supply of helium have brought about the rapid decline of the
The development of heavier than air craft as a military
weapon covers a period of less than forty years as compared
with a period of development of lighter than air craft of
over two hundred and fifty years. And yet, today, the im-
portance of heavier than air craft has increased tremendously
while that of the lighter than air craft is declining. Soon
after the successes of men such as the Wright brothers, Curtis,
Bleriot, and others, the major powers began developing the
airplane as a means of observation for military purposes.
The first use of the airplane in warfare was made by the
Italians in 1912 against the Turks. Also during this cam-
paign aerial "bombing and aerial mapping were attempted.
When the first World War began the airplanes of both
sides were built with the trend towards stability. However,
this made them very slow. The Germans, and the Allies as well,
soon recognized the desperate need for speed and began to re-
vise their designs. Anthony Fokker, who offered his services
to the Allies and was refused, created a new type of warfare.
First, he produced airplanes that were both speedy and ma-
neuverable. Second, he included a machine gun on the fuse-
lage of his craft. And, third, he invented a synchronizing
control mechanism which allowed the machine gun to be fired
through the propeller. These gave the Germans an initial ad-
vantage over the Allies and which, coupled with Germany s
production methods, were never fully overcome.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, mili-
tary aviation was practically nil. The air force consisted
of but 60 airplanes, 65 officers, and 1120 enlisted men.
But through generous appropriations by Congress the air force
was expanded rapidly. At the time of the Armistice the
United States had increased its air arm to 14,230 officers
and 124,760 enlisted men. America had built 3,291) airplanes
and 13,386 aircraft engines. This clearly shows the impetus
that World War I gave to aviation in the United States.
While World War I had an important effect on the de-
velopment of aviation, the airplane did not alter greatly the
general plan of battle. However, this is not true of the
present World War. The efforts of the Germans in this war
have shown the influence that aircraft have already had on
modern warfare. The development of the dive bomber and me-
dium "bomber in large quantities has changed the tactics of
battle from the slow trench fighting of 1918 for which the
French, Belgians, Poles, and other nations were prepared to
a rapid war of movement. Aircraft played a definite role in
the blitzgreig by Germany of many of the subjected countries.
Also with the development of the long range bomber, no coun-
try is now safe from attack. This is shown by the bombing
of London, Tokyo, and Pearl Harbor. In naval warfare air-
craft, especially the torpedo airplane, has lessened the im-
portance of the battleship and has increased the importance
of the aircraft carrier. This is witnessed by the sinking
of the Price of Wales and the Repulse which were sunk en-
tirely by airplanes. Also the fact that the United States and
Great Britain are building more aircraft carriers in propor-
tion to battleships than ever before substantiates this state-
The desires of men to produce a weapon that is more deadly
and effective than any in use by their enemies have played an
important part in the development of aviation. Aviation is
now paying back man threefold for his efforts. The devel-
opment of aviation for war purposes has been positive and
quick which gives to the victor a powerful weapon but gives
to the vanquished death and destruction of, unfortunately,
the irreplaceable monument of civilization and culture.
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Magoun, P. A. , and Hodgins, E., A History o f Aircraft ,
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