Anti-aircraft artillery is the Cinderella subject of the German Air Service, and together with ground fire from small arms and machine guns has recieved scant attention by historians of the Great War. Although there are dozens of books about the flying aces and the machines they flew, you will have to look hard for information on anti-aircraft artillery and its effect on the war in the air over the Western Front (not to mention the largely forgotten fronts of Italy, Macedonia or the Middle East). When you do start to dig, however, and particularly when you start to compare statistics on the relative effect of anti-aircraft fire vis a vis air-to-air combat the results can be startling. We all know that Archie was the dog that barked but didn't bite - after all Biggles never got shot down by him did he? and neither did many of the real heroes of the war in the air? But in truth they did, in fairly large numbers and including the British ace Mick Mannock
and the 'Red Baron' himself.
Just to begin with, a few of the published statistics. It has been calculated that between 1914 and 1918 German anti-aircraft fire was responsible for shooting down 1,580 Allied aircraft, or about 19% of the total number of Allied aircraft shot down on the Western Front. The bulk of these (1,537) were shot down between 1915 and 1918, with the figure for 1915 given as 25% of the total number of Allied aircraft shot down on the Western Front for that year, rising dramatically to an incredible 47% in the last ten months of the war (Westermann pp.24-27). That's one in the eye for Biggles! But hang on to your goggles, chaps! The truth is out there, but it is more complicated than these figures would suggest...
Let us start with a definition of anti-aircraft fire - I will define it here as all kinds of fire directed at aircraft from the ground, both the high-level explosive anti-aircraft artillery (Archie) and the full spectrum of small arms and machine-gun fire directed at aircraft from the ground (ground fire). Not all historians or authors stop to define what they mean (after all, we all know what we mean, don't we?), and in practice anti-aircraft artillery and ground fire are often confused or just lumped together, so statistics like the ones above can sometimes be unintentionally misleading. So how many of those 1,580 Allied aircraft were shot down by Archie, and how many by ground fire? The simple answer, unfortunately, is that nobody really knows because nobody made this distinction at the time or kept detailed enough records.(1)
Secondly, the statistics quoted above refer to all types of aircraft following a full variety of combat missions. Scout, or fighter pilots could often avoid the Archie hot-spots, they were generally less vulnerable as they were faster and could take evasive action when targetted by anti-aircraft artillery; and they often flew at higher altitudes where anti-aircraft artillery was less effective. So you would expect the casualty or loss statistics for single-seater scouts to be lower, for Archie at least. Are they? Sorry, we don't know - again, nobody kept effective records of this at the time (although they can be inferred, at least partially, from the information now available - more on that later!). And what about ground fire? Well, again, no separate records were kept at the time so no one really knows (although these can be inferred also, to some extent). Pilot memoirs would suggest that casualty rates from ground fire were high, and common sense would suggest that scouts, when flying low (particularly on the ground support missions which were a common experience for many scout pilots during the major offensives of the last year of the war) would be specially vulnerable to the increasing number of machine guns deployed by the ground forces.