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Aeroplanes and Dirigibles of War
Aeroplanes and Dirigibles of War
Published by Scott
9 August 2006
Chapter XVIII


CHAPTER XVIII: AIRCRAFT AND NAVAL OPERATIONS

When once the flying machine had indicated its possibilities in connection with land operations it was only natural that endeavours should be made to adapt it to the more rigorous requirements of the naval service. But the conditions are so vastly dissimilar that only a meagre measure of success has been recorded. Bomb-throwing from aloft upon the decks of battleships appeals vividly to the popular imagination, and the widespread destruction which may be caused by dropping such an agent down the funnel of a vessel into the boiler-room is a favourite theme among writers of fiction and artists. But hitting such an objective while it is tearing at high speed through the water, from a height of several thousand feet is a vastly different task from throwing sticks and balls at an Aunt Sally on terra firma: the target is so small and elusive.

Practically it is impossible to employ the flying machine, whether it be a dirigible or an aeroplane, in this field. Many factors militate against such an application. In the first place there is a very wide difference between dry land and a stretch of water as an area over which to manoeuvre. So far as the land is concerned descent is practicable at any time and almost anywhere. But an attempt to descend upon the open sea even when the latter is as calm as the proverbial mill-pond is fraught with considerable danger. The air-currents immediately above the water differ radically from those prevailing above the surface of the land. Solar radiation also plays a very vital part. In fact the dirigible dare not venture to make such a landing even if it be provided with floats. The chances are a thousand to one that the cars will become water-logged, rendering re-ascent a matter of extreme difficulty, if not absolutely impossible. On the other hand, the aeroplane when equipped with floats, is able to alight upon the water, and to rest thereon for a time. It may even take in a new supply of fuel if the elements be propitious, and may be able to re-ascend, but the occasions are rare when such operations can be carried out successfully.

In operations over water the airman is confronted with one serious danger--the risk of losing his bearings and his way. For instance, many attempts have been made to cross the North Sea by aeroplane, but only one has proved successful so far. The intrepid aviator did succeed in passing from the shore of Britain to the coast of Scandinavia. Many people suppose that because an airman is equipped with a compass he must be able to find his way, but this is a fallacy. The aviator is in the same plight as a mariner who is compelled from circumstances to rely upon his compass alone, and who is debarred by inclement weather from deciding his precise position by taking the sun. A ship ploughing the waters has to contend against the action of cross currents, the speed of which varies considerably, as well as adverse winds. Unless absolute correction for these influences can be made the ship will wander considerably from its course. The airman is placed in a worse position. He has no means of determining the direction and velocity of the currents prevailing in the atmosphere, and his compass cannot give him any help in this connection, because it merely indicates direction.

Unless the airman has some means of determining his position, such as landmarks, he fails to realise the fact that he is drifting, or, even if he becomes aware of this fact, it is by no means a simple straightforward matter for him to make adequate allowance for the factor. Side-drift is the aviator's greatest enemy. It cannot be determined with any degree of accuracy. If the compass were an infallible guide the airman would be able to complete a given journey in dense fog just as easily as in clear weather. It is the action of the cross currents and the unconscious drift which render movement in the air during fog as impracticable with safety as manoeuvring through the water under similar conditions. More than one bold and skilful aviator has essayed the crossing of the English Channel and, being overtaken by fog, has failed to make the opposite coast. His compass has given him the proper direction, but the side-drift has proved his undoing, with the result that he has missed his objective.

The fickle character of the winds over the water, especially over such expanses as the North Sea, constitutes another and seriously adverse factor. Storms, squalls, gales, and, in winter, blizzards, spring up with magical suddenness, and are so severe that no aircraft could hope to live in them. But such visitations are more to be dreaded by the lighter-than-air than by the heavier-than-air machines. The former offers a considerable area of resistance to the tempest and is caught up by the whirlwind before the pilot fully grasps the significant chance of the natural phenomenon. Once a dirigible is swept out of the hands of its pilot its doom is sealed.

On the other hand, the speed attainable by the aeroplane constitutes its safety. It can run before the wind, and meantime can climb steadily and rapidly to a higher altitude, until at last it enters a contrary wind or even a tolerably quiescent atmosphere. Even if it encounters the tempest head on there is no immediate danger if the aviator keep cool. This fact has been established times out of number and the airman has been sufficiently skilful and quick-witted to succeed in frustrating the destructive tactics of his natural enemy.

Only a short while ago in France, British airmen who went aloft in a gale found the latter too strong for them. Although the machine was driven full speed ahead it was forced backwards at the rate of 10 miles per hour because the independent speed of the aeroplane was less than the velocity of the wind. But a dirigible has never succeeded in weathering a gale; its bulk, area, and weight, combined with its relatively slow movement, are against it, with the result that it is hurled to destruction. All things considered, the dirigible is regarded as an impracticable acquisition to a fleet, except in the eyes of the Germans, who have been induced to place implicit reliance upon their monsters. The gullible Teuton public confidently believes that their Dreadnoughts of the air will complete the destruction of the British fleet, but responsible persons know full well that they will not play such a part, but must be reserved for scouting. Hitherto, in naval operations, mosquito water-craft, such as torpedo-boats, have been employed in this service. But these swift vessels suffer from one serious disability. The range of vision is necessarily limited, and a slight mist hanging over the water blinds them; the enemy may even pass within half-a-mile of them and escape detection.

The Zeppelin from its position 1,000 feet or more above the water, in clear weather, has a tremendous range of vision; the horizon is about 40 miles distant, as compared with approximately 8 miles in the case of the torpedo-boat. of course an object, such as a battleship, may be detected at a far greater range. Consequently the German naval programme is to send the Zeppelin a certain distance ahead of the battleship squadron. The dirigible from its coign of vantage would be able to sight a hostile squadron if it were within visual range and would communicate the fact to the commander of the fleet below. The latter would decide his course according to information received; thus he would be enabled to elude his enemy, or, if the tidings received from the aerial scout should be favourable, to dispose his vessels in the most favourable array for attack.

The German code of naval tactics does not foreshadow the use of dirigible aircraft as vessels of attack. Scouting is the primary and indeed the only useful duty of the dirigible, although it is quite possible that the aerial craft might participate in a subsequent naval engagement, as, indeed, has been the case. Its participation, however, would be governed entirely by climatic conditions. The fact that the dirigible is a weak unit of attack in naval operations is fully appreciated by all the belligerents.

The picture of a sky "black with Zeppelins" may appeal to the popular imagination, and may induce the uninitiated to cherish the belief that such an array would strike terror into the hearts of the foe, but the naval authorities are well aware that no material advantage would accrue from such a force. In the first place they would constitute an ideal target for the enemy's vessels. They would be compelled to draw within range in order to render their own attack effective, and promiscuous shooting from below would probably achieve the desired end. One or more of the hostile aircraft would be hit within a short while. Such disasters would undoubtedly throw the aerial fleet into confusion, and possibly might interfere with the tactical developments of its own friends upon the water below.

The shells hurled from the Zeppelins would probably inflict but little damage upon the warships beneath. Let it be conceded that they weigh about 500 pounds, which is two-thirds of the weight of the projectile hurled from the Krupp 128-centimetre howitzer. Such a missile would have but little destructive effect if dropped from a height of 1,000 feet. To achieve a result commensurate with that of the 28-centimetre howitzer the airship would have to launch the missile from a height of about 7,000 feet. To take aim from such an altitude is impossible, especially at a rapidly moving target such as a battle-cruiser.

The fact must not be forgotten that Count Zeppelin himself has expressed the opinion, the result of careful and prolonged experiments, that his craft is practically useless at a height exceeding 5,000 feet. Another point must not be overlooked. In a spirited naval engagement the combatants would speedily be obliterated from the view of those aloft by the thick pall of smoke--the combination of gun-fire and emission from the furnaces and a blind attack would be just as likely to damage friend as foe.

Even if the aircraft ventured to descend as low as 5,000 feet it would be faced with another adverse influence. The discharge of the heavy battleship guns would bring about such an agitation of the air above as to imperil the delicate equilibrium of an airship. Nor must one overlook the circumstance that in such an engagement the Zeppelins would become the prey of hostile aeroplanes. The latter, being swifter and nimbler, would harry the cumbersome and slow-moving dirigible in the manner of a dog baiting a bear to such a degree that the dirigible would be compelled to sheer off to secure ts own safety. Desperate bravery and grim determination may be magnificent physical attributes, ut they would have to be superhuman to face the stinging recurrent attacks of mosquito-aeroplanes.

The limitations of the Zeppelin, and in fact of all dirigible aircraft, were emphasised upon the occasion of the British aerial raid upon Cuxhaven. Two Zeppelins bravely put out to overwhelm the cruisers and torpedo boats which accompanied and supported the British sea-planes, but when confronted with well-placed firing from the guns of the vessels below they quickly decided that discretion was the better part of valour and drew off. In naval operations the aeroplane is a far more formidable foe, although here again there are many limitations. The first and most serious is the severely limited radius of action. The aeroplane motor is a hungry engine, while the fuel capacity of the tank is restricted. The German military authorities speedily realised the significance of this factor and its bearing upon useful operations, and forth with carried out elaborate endurance tests. In numerable flights were made with the express purpose of determining how long a machine could remain in the air upon a single fuel supply.

The results of these flights were collated and the achievements of each machine in this direction carefully analysed, a mean average drawn up, and then pigeon-holed. The results were kept secret, only the more sensational records being published to the world. As the policy of standardisation in the construction of aeroplanes was adopted the radius of action of each type became established. It is true that variations of this factor even among vessels exactly similar in every respect are inevitable, but it was possible to establish a reliable mean average for general guidance.

The archives of the Berlin military department are crowded with facts and figures relating to this particular essential, so that the radius of action, that is the mileage upon a single fuel charge, of any class and type of machine may be ascertained in a moment. The consequence is that the military authorities are able to decide the type of aeroplane which is best suited to a certain projected task. According to the dossier in the pigeon-hole, wherein the results of the type are filed, the aeroplane will be able to go so far, and upon arriving at that point will be able to accomplish so much work, and then be able to return home. Consequently it is dispatched upon the especial duty without any feeling of uncertainty.

Unfortunately, these experimental processes were too methodical to prove reliable. The endurance data were prepared from tests carried out in the aerodrome and from cross-country trials accomplished under ideal or fair-weather conditions. The result is that calculations have been often upset somewhat rudely by weather conditions of a totally unexpected character, which bring home vividly the striking difference between theory and practice.

The British and French aviation authorities have not adopted such methodical standardisation or rule of thumb inferences, but rather have fostered individual enterprise and initiative. This stimulation of research has been responsible for the creation of a type of aeroplane specially adapted to naval service, and generically known as the water plane, the outstanding point of difference from the aeroplane being the substitution of canoes or floats for the wheeled chassis peculiar to the land machine. The flier is sturdily built, while the floats are suf ficiently substantial to support the craft upon the water in calm weather. Perhaps it was the insular situation of the British nation which was responsible for this trend of development, because so far as Britain is concerned the sea-going aeroplane is in dispensable. But the salient fact remains that to-day the waterplane service of Great Britain is the most efficient in the world, the craft being speedy, designed and built to meet the rough weather conditions which are experienced around these islands, and ideal vessels for patrol and raiding duties.

So far as the British practice is concerned the waterplane is designed to operate in conjunction with, and not apart from, the Navy. It has been made the eyes of the Navy in the strictest interpretation of the term. In any such combination the great difficulty is the establishment of what may be termed a mobile base, inasmuch as the waterplane must move with the fleet. This end has been achieved by the evolution of a means of carrying a waterplane upon, and launching it from, a battleship, if necessary.

For this purpose a docking cradle or way has been provided aft where the aeroplane may be housed until the moment arrives for its employment. Several vessels have been devoted to this nursing duty and are known as parent ships to the waterplane service. All that is requisite when the time arrives for the use of the seaplane is to lift it bodily by derrick or crane from its cradle and to lower it upon the water. It will be remembered that the American naval authorities made an experiment with a scheme for directly launching the warplane from the deck of a battleship in the orthodox, as well as offering it a spot upon which to alight upon returning from a flight, while Wing-Commander Samson, R.N., D.S.O., the famous British airman, repeated the experiment by flying from a similar launching way installed upon H.M.S. Hibernia. But this practice has many shortcomings. So far as the British and French navies are concerned, the former process is preferred. Again, when the waterplane returns from a flight it is admitted that it is simpler, quicker, and safer for it to settle upon the water near the parent ship and to be lifted on board.

As a sea-scout the waterplane is overwhelmingly superior to the dirigible as events have conclusively proved. Its greater mobility and speed stand it in excellent stead because it is able to cover a larger area within a shorter space of time than its huge and unwieldy contemporary. Furthermore, it is a difficult target to hit and accordingly is not so likely to be brought down by hostile fire. There is another point in its favour. The experience of the war has proved that the numerically inferior enemy prefers to carry out his naval operations under the cover of the mist and haze which settle upon the water, and yet are of sufficient depth to conceal his identity and composition. Such mists as a rule comprise a relatively thin bank of low-lying vapour, which while enveloping the surface of the water in an impenetrable pall, yet permits the mast-heads of the vessels to stand out clearly, although they cannot be detected from the water-level or even from the control and fighting tops of a warship. A scouting waterplane, however, is able to observe them and note their movement, and accordingly can collect useful information concerning the apparent composition of the hidden force, the course it is following, its travelling speed, and so forth, which it can convey immediately to its friends.

The aeroplane has established its value in another manner. Coal-burning vessels when moving at any pronounced speed invariably throw off large quantities of smoke, which may be detected easily from above, even when the vessels themselves are completely hidden in the mist. It was this circumstance which revealed the presence of the British squadron in the affair of the Bight of Heligoland.

The German airman on patrol duty from the adjacent base on the island of Heligoland detected the presence of this smoke, above the low-lying bank of fog, although there were no other visible signs of any vessels. Fully cognisant of the fact that the German Fleet was at anchor in a safe place he naturally divined that the smoke proceeded from a hostile squadron, evidently bent upon a raid. He returned to his headquarters, conveyed the intelligence he had collected to his superior officers, upon receipt of which a German cruiser squadron was sent out and engaged the British vessels to its own discomfiture. But for the airman's vigilance and smartness there is no doubt that the British squadron would have accomplished a great coup.

This incident, however, served to reveal that the aerial scout is prone to suffer from over-keenness and to collect only a partial amount of information. Upon this occasion the German watchman detected the presence of the British torpedo-boat and light cruiser force. Had he continued his investigations and made a wider sweep he would have discovered the proximity of the British battle-cruiser squadron which routed the German force, the latter having acted on incomplete information.

While the low-lying sea-fog is the navigator's worst enemy, it is the airman's greatest friend and protection. It not only preserves him against visual discovery from below, but is an excellent insulator of sound, so that his whereabouts is not betrayed by the noise of his motor. It is of in calculable value in another way. When a fog prevails the sea is generally as smooth as the pro verbial mirror, enabling the waterplanes to be brought up under cover to a suitable point from which they may be dispatched. Upon their release by climbing to a height of a few hundred feet the airmen are able to reach a clear atmosphere, where by means of the compass it is possible to advance in approximately the desired direction, safe from discovery from below owing to the fog. If they are "spotted" they can dive into its friendly depths, complete their work, and make for the parent ship.

Low-lying sea-fogs are favourable to aerial raids provided the scout is able to catch sight of the upper parts of landmarks to enable him to be sure of the correctness of his line of flight-in cases where the distance is very short compass direction is sufficiently reliable-because the bank of vapour not only constitutes a perfect screen, but serves as a blanket to the motor exhaust, if not completely, at least sufficiently to mislead those below. Fogs, as every mariner will testify, play strange tricks with the transmission of sound. Hence, although those on the vessels below might detect a slight hum, it might possibly be so faint as to convey the impression that the aviator was miles away, when, as a matter of fact, he was directly overhead. This confusion arising from sound aberration is a useful protection in itself, as it tends to lure a naval force lying in or moving through the fog into a false sense of security.

The development of the submarine revealed the incontrovertible fact that this arm would play a prominent part in future operations upon the water: a presage which has been adequately fulfilled during the present conflict. The instinct of self-preservation at once provoked a discussion of the most effective ways and means of disguising its whereabouts when it travels submerged. To this end the German naval authorities conducted a series of elaborate and interesting experiments off the island of Heligoland. As is well known, when one is directly above a stretch of shallow water, the bottom of the latter can be seen quite distinctly. Consequentiy, it was decided to employ aerial craft as detectives. Both the aeroplane and the dirigible took part in these experiments, being flown at varying heights, while the submarine was maneouvred at different depths immediately below. The sum of these investigations proved conclusively that a submarine may be detected from aloft when moving at a depth of from 30 to 40 feet. The outline of the submerged craft is certainly somewhat blurred, but nevertheless it is sufficiently distinct to enable its identity to be determined really against the background or bottom of the sea. To combat this detection from an aerial position it will be necessary inter alia to evolve a more harmonious or protective colour-scheme for the submarine. Their investigations were responsible for the inauguration of the elaborate German aerial patrol of harbours, the base for such aerial operations being established upon the island of Heligoland.

So far the stern test of war as applied to the science of aeronautics has emphasised the fact that as a naval unit the dirigible is a complete failure. Whether experience will bring about a modification of these views time alone will show, but it is certain that existing principles of design will have to undergo a radical revision to achieve any notable results. The aeroplane alone has proved successful in this domain, and it is upon this type of aerial craft that dependence will have to be placed.




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