Air Artillery

Several different methods were used to destroy enemy aircraft. People on the ground fired rifles and other small arms at hostile aircraft, but this was rarely successful. The main strategy adopted was the use of anti-aircraft artillery.

The first purpose-designed anti-aircraft weapons were produced by Germany in 1909. As there were so few aircraft at that time, the German Army did not believe it was justified to spend much money on these guns and few were available when war was declared in 1914.

At the outbreak of the war in August 1914, the French Army possessed just two purpose-built anti-aircraft armoured cars and the British had a small number of motorised 3-inch 20 cwt guns. The rapid growth in the role of aircraft in the war forced all the main countries involved to improve anti-aircraft weapons. At first all types of guns were fitted to upward-firing mountings.

In Britain an Anti-Aircraft Brigade was formed by the Royal Marine Artillery. The equipment chosen for this unit was a Vickers Naval gun mounted on a Pierce-Arrow 5-ton armoured lorry chassis. The Anti-Aircraft Brigade had four batteries. Each battery was equipped with four Vickers Naval guns and Pierce-Arrow armoured cars. Three of these were positioned to provide protection of government buildings in Whitehall.

Pierce-Arrow Anti-Aircraft Armoured Car
Pierce-Arrow Anti-Aircraft Armoured Car

The Anti-Aircraft Brigade claimed its first victim on 30th April 1915. The Vickers gun could fire four rounds a minute. At first the range was only 3,000 yards but improvements in fuses and ammunition progressively improved the distance their shells could travel. At least two guns were used so that a ranging shot could be followed by another one that had more chance of hitting the target.

It soon became clear that small groups of guns working together had only a small chance of hitting a target that had the ability to manoeuvre in three dimensions. Anti-aircraft guns were later grouped in large formations. These were usually positioned around military installations, airfields, industrial areas, population centres and on the coast. The main barrage strategy was to place blanket coverage over a particular sector of airspace. Most anti-aircraft commanders believed that shrapnel stood the best chance of bringing down an aircraft. Others preferred high explosive shells or incendiary shells.

By June 1916 Britain had 271 anti-aircraft guns and 258 searchlights in position to defend possible German targets. The Air Ministry believed that they required at least 487 anti-aircraft guns to provide the country with a reasonable defence against German bombing missions. However, even by 1918, Britain only had 349 anti-aircraft guns and although they occasionally brought down German aircraft they were widely viewed as being inadequate.

Primary Sources

(1) Captain F. R. Scarlett, sent a report to the Minister of War in December 1914, concerning the use of anti-aircraft guns against German aircraft.

The effect of gunfire against German aircraft has been to force him to climb: it also worries him and distracts his attention from his objective and forces him to drop his bombs from so great a height that he will probably miss his target by a large margin.

(2) Sometimes anti-aircraft guns hit British aircraft trying to protect the civilian population. Flight Lieutenant Claude Riley was hit while attacking German bombers over Shoeburyness. When he landed he reported what had happened.

The gunners do not seem to have realised that the aircraft might not be German. Such a mistake points to a want of familiarity with aeroplane tactics on the part of personnel of the anti-aircraft batteries and observer companies.

(3) Wing Commander Maurice Baring kept a diary during the First World War. This material was later published in his book Flying Corps Headquarters: 1914-1918.

March 10th, 1915: We established an advanced Headquarters at Hazebrouck. This was the first time during the war that aircraft co-operated with artillery in battle. Some of the pilots were up nearly all day sending wireless messages.

September 16th, 1916: Never had less than six machines in the air; most of them did seven hours. Artillery co-operation had never been so great in volume, nor so effective.