Beyond Vimy: The Rise of Air Power, Part 1

Black and white photograph showing a biplane, with the pilot aiming a machine gun and an observer sitting in the rear.036: Beyond Vimy: The Rise of Air Power, Part 1
April 6, 2017

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April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the attack and capture of Vimy Ridge, when all four divisions of the Canadian Corps worked together for the first time. During the First World War, over 25,000 Canadians served with the British Flying Service as pilots, observers and mechanics, and even though the Battle of Vimy Ridge is better known as a ground offensive, many of the preparations for the assault on Vimy took place in the air. In Part 1 of this episode, we sit down with Bill Rawling, historian and author of the book Surviving Trench Warfare, and Hugh Halliday, author and retired curator at the Canadian War Museum, to discuss the role Canada and her allies played in the air over Vimy Ridge and Arras in April 1917, a month known as “Bloody April.”

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Podcast Transcript

Beyond Vimy: The Rise of Air Power, Part 1

Geneviève Morin (GM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the attack and capture of Vimy Ridge, when all four divisions of the Canadian Corps worked together for the first time. This was part of a wider battle that took place during April and May of that year, at Arras, France.

During the First World War, over 25 000 Canadians served with the British Flying Service as pilots, observers and mechanics, and even though Vimy Ridge is better known as a ground offensive, many of the preparations for the assault on Vimy, took place in the air.

In Part 1 of this two-part episode, we sit down with Bill Rawling, historian and author of the book Surviving Trench Warfare, and Hugh Halliday, author and retired curator at the Canadian War Museum, to discuss the role Canada and her allies played in the air over Vimy Ridge and Arras in April 1917, a month known as “Bloody April.”

We talk about the overall air campaign during the First World War, the types of aircraft used and the technological and strategic changes during that time. We also discuss some of the airmen who would become known as Canadian Flying Aces. We finish by touching on resources available here at Library and Archives Canada to researchers interested in these topics.

GM: Hi, Bill. How are you today? Thanks for joining us.

Bill Rawling (BR): Oh, thanks for having me.

GM: April 1917 was known as “Bloody April” to the airmen that flew over Vimy Ridge. What were the primary tasks conducted and dangers that the pilots experienced over the battle field?

BR: Well by the time they began preparing for the assault on Vimy Ridge at the end of 1916, the British had lost air superiority over the area for a variety of reasons, an important one being that the Germans had introduced the Albatross aircraft into use, which was superior or at least equal to the aircraft that the British were using.

As for the tasks that they were carrying out, beginning in 1911 the main task for aircraft was reconnaissance and that was still the case in 1917.  Aircraft were sent over German lines to find out where their artillery was located, where their defensive positions were located, what roads and routes they were using to bring up supplies. And that information could be relayed to Canadian and British artillery who would then try to destroy the artillery, the defenses and interdict the movement of supplies so that front-line German troops would run out of food, ammunition, water and be incapable of defending their positions. So, that’s one task—reconnaissance.

Another was adjusting fire, and this was a later development. This only began with the First World War. And that was aircraft—two-seater aircraft—so you know the pilot would be keeping an eye out for the enemy and an observer would watch where artillery rounds were landing and adjust fire. So, communicate with the artillery batteries to tell them that you’re firing too far to the left, you need to adjust 50 metres to the right, or you need to come forward 50 metres, or what have you. So, uh, so that would be the second task is adjusting fire, a very dangerous one because you’re actually firing over German positions who are going to try to shoot you down, naturally.

A third—and this is probably the most recent development—a third was air interdiction or the attempt to gain air superiority or even air supremacy, though that never happened in the First World War. And this is the use of fighter aircraft sent deep behind enemy lines to shoot down their aircraft so that they would not be able to interfere with the main tasks, which was reconnaissance and adjusting fire. And that was the main problem at the time.

It’s called “Bloody April” simply because April was the worst month of, say, 1917. But almost for the entire year, the British were on the back foot when it came to air superiority and the Germans had the advantage. So that even though, for example, the British had fighter aircraft to defend—the front lines and headquarters, Canadian Corps headquarters—every week from early March to the time they launched the attack in early April reported evermore enemy air activity…

GM: Oh.

BR: …and evermore bombings. So just to give you an idea of how difficult the British Expeditionary Force, the Canadian Corps, and what trouble the Royal Flying Corps was facing in those days.

GM: That third task that you were talking about, the air superiority or the air interdiction, that must have—did the men actually come back from those missions? I can just imagine the Germans—if they’re going deep behind enemy lines, they must have been getting shot down relentlessly.

BR: Well, that’s part of the reason that you have “Bloody April.” When you are shot down, you’re lost.

GM: Yeah.

BR: I mean even if you survive, you’re taken prisoner. And, so they’re going to be the British and the Canadian pilots—by this time a quarter, maybe a third of the pilots in the area were Canadian. When the Germans would not come any further than, say, core headquarters to attack, if they were hit they had a chance of gliding back over their own lines. The British and Canadians did not. I mean, they were just too far away and they’d come back behind German lines and be captured and so you have a lot more “missing” listed in the Royal Flying Core than you would in the German air force.

GM: Hugh Halliday weighs in on more tasks that the airmen conducted…

Hugh Halliday (HH): Well, “Bloody April” is in fact just a culmination of about five months of very heavy losses by the Royal Flying Corps. The Royal Flying Corps has inferior airplanes, inferior tactics—they’re learning a great deal from the Germans. The principal advantage that the Germans have is that most of their fighter aircraft have two machine guns and most of the British types have only one.

Help is on the way. About May, late April and in May, new types of British aircraft come into service, the Sopwith Camel, the S.E.5, which will serve until the end of the war and provide some sort of equivalency to what the Germans have been doing. But in the lead-up to Vimy Ridge, yes the British have been taking horrendous aerial losses. This is in part because the British had a policy of forward operations. That is, they would try to control not only the airspace over their own trenches, but behind the enemy lines. And of course, if you’re badly shot-up ten miles behind the lines, you’ve got less of a chance to get back to your own lines. The Germans tended to—tended, not exclusively—to operate up to the front line and very little behind that.

Then at the day of the battle, there’s what they call the contact patrol. Contact patrol is something that’s been developed since 1916 by all sides, and what happens is that when the troops go over the top, the commanders are out of contact with them. They may try to be in touch by unravelling telephone cables, which of course can be cut by artillery fire. Pigeons in these circumstances are basically useful for food supplements and nothing else.

GM: [Laughs]

HH: Radio is primitive. So, the contact patrol aircraft that will fly low over the battle field trying to find out where your troops are, reporting this to headquarters in the rear, and even sometimes to battalions on either flank, and reporting on any possibly unexpected enemy resistance, strongpoints, et cetera. So those are the basic tasks.

What are the basic dangers? Well, enemy aeroplanes, anti-aircraft fire, and quite apart from standard anti-aircraft fire, there’s the danger of infantry fire because some of these aircraft and particularly the contact patrols are going very low, I mean at 500 feet. There’s a lot of machine guns and rifles that can be pointed your way.

GM: Really? And that would be enough to—would you need more than one hit or just one lucky shot to get…?

HH: One lucky shot will do.

GM: Holy moly. So at Vimy, what kind of anti-aircraft artillery would they be using if it wasn’t a rifle?

HH: Well standard machine guns of whatever calibre might be used by the infantry, heavy calibre stuff in the realm of 70 millimetre thereabouts.

GM: Okay. In the lead up to the Battle of Vimy Ridge, how were the airplanes, their pilots, the Royal Flying Corps, and the Royal Naval Air Service viewed by military leaders at the time… Bill tells us.

BR: Well that’s a good question because it’s one that in many ways is still relevant today. In effect, who owns the air force? Now at the beginning of the First World War that wasn’t really an issue. The navy had aircraft, the army had aircraft and there was no separate, independent air force, but by the middle of the First World War you now have pilots and sort of higher authorities within the army and the navy who think, well hang on a minute, if we were independent of the army and the navy then we would be able to do our work more effectively because you know the army doesn’t understand us or the navy doesn’t understand us. 

Now the navy was willing to conduct strategic bombing.  That’s a whole other issue from what we’re discussing here which is mostly Vimy Ridge, but it is through strategic bombing that the air force will gain its independence but only after the First World War. The navy saw aircraft as very useful for reconnaissance and observation. And aircraft can get a lot higher than any officer in a ship. And the higher you are, the further your horizon is and the more you can see. And for observation that means that you can fire your guns to their maximum range and still have someone be able to determine where your fall-of-shot is and adjust fire accordingly.

So the navy saw aircraft in those terms, and there are other uses—patrolling. Float planes and flying boats can patrol huge distances looking for, well for example, U-boats. One of the first Canadian air forces—there were three created during the war—is a naval air force based in Canada to patrol the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and those areas when U-boats began to operate there in 1918. So, from the navy’s point of view, these aircraft are very useful for that function—patrolling.

The army saw them beginning at the turn of the century as very useful for reconnaissance and for observation and later on during the First World War would use them as sort of a long-distance artillery dropping bombs—not very useful that way. They didn’t do very much damage. So, but the army really found that they were useful in regard to reconnaissance, observation, adjusting artillery fire so that everything else—all of the fighters, all of the men who are making names for themselves by shooting down other aircraft—in fact, they are performing a support function. They’re shooting down enemy aircraft to protect the observer and artillery aircraft.

GM: Once again, Hugh Halliday.

HH: This is the whole purpose of having fighter aircraft. The fighter aircraft were there either to put out the eyes of the enemy—i.e. shoot down their reconnaissance aircraft—or protect our own. There comes a question of how do you protect our own. Do you try to fly alongside or do you fly about two or three miles away and watch for enemy aircraft approaching? This is a matter of tactics that you find again in the Second World War. But the important thing, the most important thing, is actually the reconnaissance aircraft—protecting your own or shooting down the enemy. The fighter pilots are the most overpublicized personnel of the air forces. They are actually spear bearers. When you look at what an artillery observation airplane is doing, it is directing heavy artillery fire. And a good observation crew can—in cooperation with the artillery—kill more Germans in an hour than Billy Bishop could in a lifetime.

GM: I was just going to bring up Billy Bishop. So, he’s not that cool after all [laughs].

HH: The fighter pilots, as I say, are much overrated.

GM: We’ll have a lot more on Billy Bishop in Part 2 of this episode. Now, back to Bill discussing how pilots communicated with the ground…

BR: How does the aircraft communicate that it has found an artillery battery? Now, eventually that will simply be radio. But radio systems in the First World War were very heavy. So at first, say 1916, what you do is you leave your observer behind because the radio is going to take up that space and that weight.

GM: [Laughing] Oh no.

BR: And so the pilot would then transmit the information but not knowing if it was being received because there was no receiver in the aircraft. Now by 1917, some aircraft had two-way radio communications but not all of them. And so another method would be to drop a message over headquarters. So you’re part of—or you’re working on behalf of an artillery brigade. You know where the brigade is located. When you find the enemy, you fly back—only takes a few minutes—drop a message in a weighted bag so they know where the enemy’s located and they can open fire. Another method would be to flash the message, so the observer can with a light flash a message to brigade headquarters and, again, they can then act accordingly.

Now, understand too that there are a lot of methods for locating enemy artillery on the ground—a system of microphones on the front and then when an enemy gun fires through triangulation you know where it is, not to mention patrols and trench raids. So, you have all of these various means of locating enemy artillery. They have a problem in regard to moving because their only real option is to move back, which means they’re now out of range. They can’t do their work anymore because they’ve pretty much taken up every available position within range of the British lines. So, they’re not going to move.


GM: So it’s just a question of taking cover then.

BR: Yep.

GM: Okay.

BR: So they—I mean they have dugouts for you know their personnel and once the rounds start coming in, you take cover and hope that your guns are not going to be you know destroyed in the barrage. And as it turned out, a lot of them were. Through these various means they found—if I recall correctly—there was something like 212 German artillery batteries and they found close to 180 of them.

GM: Wow.

BR: How many they managed to destroy is a different question because historians—well the people at the time and historians later start arguing about you know what is destroyed and you know what is not, what does that mean.

So that’s how—those are the—so that’s the key is how do you communicate—when you get information—how do you communicate it back to the people on the ground. And by 1917 there were these various methods.

GM: Yeah.

BR: So radio, light and simply dropping messages.

GM: We asked Hugh about the use of aerial photography in the First World War…

HH: I mean this is the most important thing that the Royal Flying Corps did in the lead-up to Vimy Ridge and that was to photograph the German trench systems, so that behind the lines the Canadians could layout—at least using tape, coloured tape—the sort of shape and geography of the German trench systems and rehearse. There was also the matter of spotting where the German artillery was so that you could preplan the bombardment not only of the trenches, not only of the wire systems, but of where the German artillery was. And it is often noted that of the 212 pieces of heavy German artillery that were present at Vimy Ridge, 180 had been pinpointed before the Canadian bombardment even began.

GM: And were they destroyed? How was—what was the success rate then?

HH: They were largely neutralized.

GM: Okay.

HH: German counter fire diminished throughout the battle.

GM: Okay.

HH: Never completely eliminated but diminished.

GM: Because how much would one of those big guns weigh? It’s not something you could just pick up and move around, if you know the enemy’s coming.

HH: I’m sorry. I don’t know.

Alex Comber: Maybe I can help. Hi I’m Alex Comber, and I’m a military Archivist at LAC. So, German anti-aircraft guns from the First World War varied from light pieces that could be rapidly transported, to heavy cannons like the 8.8 cm FlaK gun, and that one, according to sources, weighed almost 5000 kilograms or about 11 000 pounds. Listeners might be familiar with the term flak, like taking flak or flak jacket. Well, FlaK was an Allied term for German anti-aircraft fire. It dates from the First World War. The German term was Flugabwehrkanone, which was contracted to FlaK and that translates to air defense cannon.

GM: It always fascinates me that we learn so much about the Great War and whenever I get the chance to speak with someone who’s very knowledgeable on it, it always adds these extra layers of complexity and of necessity for strategizing and compiling the information—the flashing lights, the dropping bags, the radio. It’s overwhelming to imagine what the actual situation was at any given moment during the war. It’s mind-blowing, really.

BR: Well it’s—I mean the expression industrial warfare…

GM: Yeah.

BR: …has been used to describe what is happening because after a while it is out of the hands of soldiers…

GM: Yeah.

BR: …in many ways. You have people from industry, people who know about communications, people who know about logistics, people who know about how to get—how to move food you know great distances in short periods of times. And these are not military people.

GM: No?

BR: I mean they’re military now—they’ve been recruited into you know the British Expeditionary Force but their education is not military training. It’s in the civilian world. The Canadian Expeditionary Force was not just the Canadian Corps. They were also railway troops. These are people who knew how to run railways in Canada and they went to Europe and did the same.

GM: We did a podcast on the railway troops recently, actually.

BR: Okay. And the Forestry Corps.

GM: Yeah.

BR: You know, people who knew how to cut down and process trees. Some served in France, others served as far away from the front as Scotland. So this is an industrial enterprise now but the flip side to that are the horrific casualties…

GM: Yeah.

BR: …that you get as a result. This is no longer the kind of war where if things are going wrong, say like in the mid-nineteenth century, you break off. I mean, now you are seeking to destroy the enemy before the enemy destroys you. And hence, you know, these horrific losses on the western front.

GM: Let’s take it back to the boys in the air. Did the view of how the navy and the air force saw the job of the airplanes and the pilots, did this view change as they were planning the assault on Vimy Ridge?

BR: As we mentioned, the army saw the aircraft as a tool for reconnaissance, for observation, adjusting fire and for preventing enemy aircraft from interfering with yours as they’re performing these tasks. That view, say, solidifies 1915/1916. One could argue that it has not changed to the present day. You know, the army has a view of what airplanes and pilots are supposed to do. The air force does not agree.

And you know, you will see that in operations in Afghanistan. You know, the army wants aircraft to do certain things and the air force says, well that’s actually not in our job description, or it might be in our job description but it’s not the most important thing for us to do. So, you could argue not only does the attitude—the army’s attitude towards aviation—not change in the lead-up to Vimy Ridge, it probably has not changed since.

GM: Okay. I guess it’s a question of perspective and a question of expertise and you’ve got the people who are actually in the air saying, well no. And the people who actually need the guys in the air saying, well, we need you to do this.

BR:  More and more, the air force—the people in the air—were thinking in terms of if we destroy the enemy’s cities, the enemy will have to surrender. So we shouldn’t be wasting too much time observing fall-of-shot and conducting reconnaissance and so on. Now I’m talking about people at the very upper levels of the hierarchy. I mean, the pilots, they joined because they want to fly aircraft.

GM: Yeah.

BR: And they probably would have found some civilian company—not that they existed quite yet—in order to fly aircraft. But in the upper echelons there are these discussions as to how we can best employ aviation. And in the Second World War there will be serious discussions concerning whether they should be hunting U-boats, well no. We should be dropping bombs on cities. And those discussions will lead to some pretty heated arguments between…

GM: Yeah, I can imagine.

BR:  Yeah, between people and authority.

GM: Because if we’re not hunting U-boats, our boats are getting sunk.

BR: Yes. So, but the counter argument is yes, we lose ships but we win the war by bombing cities.

GM: Oh.

BR: And as it turns out, that was not the case. But that’s the kind of argument that you’re going to find near the end of the First World War. At the time of Vimy Ridge, everyone involved in the operation at Vimy was thinking in terms of the immediate requirement to ensure that the operation was a success.

GM: You mentioned that the guys who were flying got in there because they wanted to fly. Was there sort of a certain demographic that we could find in these airmen?

BR: Well certainly you needed to come from a certain social class because it cost money to learn how to fly. And both the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps insisted at the beginning of the war and up until I think 1916 that pilots have their certificates before they could join.

To give one example of someone I’ve been studying recently, Robert Leckie, he’s Scottish, moves to Toronto to work in his uncle’s marine supply store. And when war breaks out, he wants to join—no he’s been working with boats, so it makes sense that he’d join the navy but working with boats, he probably didn’t want to join as a sailor. So he gets his certificate from the Curtiss Aviation Company, which is located on Toronto Island. I mean, it would have taken him an hour to get there from where he worked. And he is recruited by the Royal Naval Air Service. And he is interviewed by the director of Canada’s naval service. So to show at what high level that these people are operating at.

GM: Okay.

BR: But he needed to have his pilot’s certificate—what would now be a licence—before they would recruit him. And only later in the war did they start recruiting people in effect off the street. But even then they were looking for gentlemen.

GM: Oh.

BR: So they were looking for people with a—well for men with a certain character. And there’s correspondence to the effect of, do you know what kind of low-brows are coming to the recruiting centre. Well, you know, to the British mind, perhaps not appropriate. But you know later on recruiting standards would change. But that’s until part way through the Second World War. So yes, these people—these men—are coming from a particular social class because they needed to pay for their training. And also because the recruiters were looking for people of a certain type.

GM: Once again, Hugh Halliday…

HH: Very early in the war, 1915 to the middle of 1916, it was a requirement, especially among the Canadians, to have a flying certificate before being enlisted in either the RNAS or the RFC. This applied more particularly if you were trying to join in Canada.

Now, there was no recruiting as such for a Canadian air force in Canada. What happened was that a lot of young men would apply either to the Governor General’s staff who actually served as a sort of recruiting office, or to Admiral Kingsmill who was the British officer in charge of the Canadian navy. So you get several hundred Canadians recruited into the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service up until the end of 1916. I might be pulling this out of a hat but I’d say the total number between the two—RNAS and RFC—is about 1200. And even then, sometimes the authorities say, “You don’t—we’re going to wave this certificate requirement. We’ll take you immediately. Here’s your ticket on the next boat to Britain.”

GM: What’s he going to do if he doesn’t have his certificate?

HH: He gets trained in Britain.

GM: Okay.

HH: And the largest source of Canadian flyers overseas is people who transfer from the army, from the Canadian Expeditionary Force. And so they transfer—sometimes they transfer and get an apprenticeship being an observer. This is how Bishop actually started. Bishop said, I’ve had enough of the trenches. He transfers to the Royal Flying Corps—and many more did do this—and he sits in the back seat of a B.E.2c for a while observing trench systems and so forth, and then he’s allowed to retrain as a pilot.

Others are luckier. They manage to transfer directly from the trenches or even the training depots in England into pilot training. By the thousands. We don’t really know quite how many do it. Then there are those who are—in 1917 the British need more air crew so they expand their training system. They have a training system set up in Egypt. They have another one set up in Canada. It’s largely a British operation. The British take the attitude, if you want something done you do it yourself.

But they set up this training scheme with bases at Camp Borden and around Toronto and Hamilton and Beamsville, Ontario. And they graduate about 3000 pilots of whom about 2000 get overseas and about two-thirds of those actually get to see action. They recruit and train mechanics in Canada, some of whom go overseas, most of whom are used to service the training scheme in Canada itself. So that’s where they come from.

GM: Another question for Bill Rawling. This is interesting. Well, so we’re getting boys from a certain class, from a certain level of society, boys who can pay for their own licences and come in trained. How did they integrate into the British fold when they went over to Britain? How did the Canadian pilots integrate with the British ones? Was there tension? Was there comradery? Was there—how did they sort of mesh?

BR: Well, the first question to ask is how many were British. You know, the British are recruiting in Canada but how many of the people they’re recruiting—the example I gave, Robert Leckie, he arrives in Canada in 1907. My great grandfather joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He had arrived in Canada in 1912. So how many of these Canadians are actually British? We know now—thanks to work by people like Jean Martin at the Directorate of History and Heritage—that by 1917, the period we’re talking about, maybe half of the Canadian Corps was British-born.

So integration’s just not an issue. They might be British-born and if they’re not British-born, they’re from a similar class. They’re graduates of the Royal Military College or some equivalent. They’ve gone to private school—Upper Canada College, Lower Canada College. So these people would have been able to work together without any difficulty.

Billy Bishop, who will be rated Canada’s number one Ace, his best friend is British. So that’s not an issue. In fact, the officers, the pilots would probably have an easier time integrating between Canadian and British than, say, with the ground crew, who were of lower rank and perhaps seen as lower class as well.

GM: Airplanes were a relatively new technology during the First World War. We asked Bill what kinds of advancements and techniques the machines and the air service saw throughout the war, and afterwards.

BR: Well, during the war, I mean, from 1914 to 1918 roughly you could say, aircraft speed doubled. The altitudes which they could reach doubled. Things that we don’t think about like pilot visibility, they increased substantially. By visibility, I mean the first aircraft had struts and wires all over the place. You know the pilot could see sort of forward and above and that was about all. The wings were in the way. All of this other paraphernalia was in the way. But with time, they found other ways to hold the wings together so that the pilot could see better. So that’s another advance one could say.

Engines become more powerful, and the aircraft become more manoeuvrable mostly because—not just because of changes in the aircraft itself but—they learn things during the war. They learned how to come out of a spin. In 1914, if you got into a spin, you were going to crash.

GM: Can you explain what a spin is?

BR: A spin is, in effect the aircraft loses altitude and as it heads down it spins, I mean left wing over right wing, right wing over left wing.

GM: Oh.

BR: And they didn’t think there was a way to get out of that until—and I’m not sure how this came about, I don’t recall but—pilots found ways. I mean they’d come out of a spin and explain, you know, I kicked the rudder in the opposite direction from what you’d think…it was counter intuitive. But anyhow, they managed to develop new techniques as well as new technologies in order to use the aircraft more effectively.

In the early days of flight, you had to expect to crash. And the idea was to see how far, how high you could go before the aircraft would fall out of the sky and they’d have to drag you out of the wreckage. Now, you’re talking about something that when it crashes, you’re going 30 kilometres an hour and you’ve come down from 30 feet and it’s all wood and canvas and it just falls apart around you. And in fact, it’s like a big crunch zone in a car. So, but yeah. You have to expect—Billy Bishop, you know, probably Canada’s most famous pilot ever, when they adopt new aircraft—the Nieuport 17—there were hard landings, as they were called, as he’s learning how to operate this aircraft. And a hard landing may well mean damage. So how many of these hard landings were actually crashes? 

GM: Yeah.

BR: So clearly as he’s learning to fly this aircraft, he’s expecting that there are going to be some tough times.

GM: So you’ve talked about—is it the Nieuport?

BR: The Nieuport 17.

GM: The Nieuport 17. What other kinds of planes were used during this time?

BR: Well the Nieuport 17 would have been the fighter aircraft, so it’s a single-seater with only a pilot, machine gun firing forward. That was one of the innovations of the First World War was for the pilot to aim the machine gun by aiming the aircraft. It simplifies the whole issue of how you shoot at an enemy. The aircraft that actually carried out the work—the observer work—the two-seater aircraft, I think we’re going to be talking at Vimy Ridge mostly the R.E.8.  So it’s a biplane. It’s a two-seater. It has a forward-firing machine gun and the observer also has a machine gun. So if they get attacked from behind, he’ll be able to defend the aircraft.

There are other types. I’m trying to remember when they actually came to the front. I mean, the Sopwith Pup may have been available at that time but by now you have monoplanes, biplanes, triplanes.

GM: And that’s the number of wings?

BR: That’s the number of wings, yeah.

GM: Okay.

BR: They say that they went to a biplane because early as they were developing aircraft they found that the amount of wing you needed to get the amount of lift you needed, I mean the wing would have collapsed under its own weight.

GM: Okay.

BR: So the solution to that is you would move to shorter wings. And the solution to manoeuvrability is three wings. They’re shorter, which means you can turn faster. So, for a fighter that can be very useful to have a short turning radius. But you get these interesting developments where you go from biplane to monoplane, which is more effective, and then from monoplane to triplane, which is more effective for whatever the task may be. But in essence in April 1917, on the British side we’re talking about single-seater fighters and two-seater observer artillery reconnaissance aircraft.

GM: Depending on whether or not the guy’s got a radio onboard.

BR: Yes. Well by 1917, I think they could afford to have radio and observer.

GM: We asked Bill how everyone knew who was who. Were the airplanes easy to identify?

BR: Oh yes, they definitely had identification. The Germans had a Maltese cross…

GM: Okay.

BR: …on their aircraft. The British and French had tricolore flags on the rudder and they had symbols on the wings so that you could identify each other. Some, you know, the Red Baron was called that because the aircraft was red. Some wanted to be identified. But for the most part it was these symbols that helped to identify friend from foe but still fog…

GM: Yeah.

BR: …cloud, you know.

GM: Fear and confusion.

BR: Fear, confusion, oil coming off your engine and onto your goggles, you know, a common problem, could affect visibility. So, there must have been a lot of friendly fire incidents, more so from the ground than in the air. There were soldiers who’d shoot at anything that flew. And if it came down then you could identify whether you’d shot the enemy of one of your own. But that also is a concern. And how do you—on the ground—how do you establish fire discipline so that the troops only shoot at enemy aircraft? So that’s a whole system of processes and procedures and how you issue orders and in order to ensure that your aircraft that are doing your work are going to be able to do so without you shooting them down.

GM: Stay tuned for Part 2 of this episode, in which we further explore Canada’s role in the skies over Vimy Ridge. We will discuss Canada’s attempts at establishing its own air force during the war and hear anecdotes from Bill Rawling and Hugh Halliday regarding some of the key figures who influenced Canada’s wartime reputation, including theories related to Billy Bishop, the infamous Canadian Flying Ace.

To learn more about Canada and the First World War at Library and Archives Canada, please visit us online at To view images associated with this podcast, you can access a direct link to our Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast. And if you liked this episode, you are invited to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through iTunes, Google Play or the RSS feed located on our website.

For additional information related to the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, please check out The Discover Blog. This month, in collaboration with the National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNA), LAC will be publishing five blogs with topics including the Canadian role before the battle, the preparations leading up to the battle, the aftermath, post-Vimy memorialization and war art.

Thank you for being with us. I’m Geneviève Morin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you”. A special thank you to our guests today, Bill Rawling and Hugh Halliday. Also, thanks to LAC Archivists Andrew Horrall, Marcelle St-Mars and Alex Comber for their contributions to this episode. Don’t forget to tune into Part 2 of this episode, coming out next month.

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