Friday, April 6, 2018

The First Recoilless Gun in the Air

In 1910, Commander Cleland Davis of the United States Navy designed the first form of recoilless gun, initially known as the “Davis Nonrecoiling Gun” or simply the Davis gun. It was patented beween 1912 and 1914. The weapon came in three calibres: 1,57 inch, 2,45 inch and 3 inches, firing 2-pound, 6-pound and 12-pound rounds, respectively. A Lewis machine gun was typically mounted on top of the Davis gun, both for sighting and as an auxiliary weapon.

The Davis gun mounted on a Curtiss flying boat 

The contraption was not a recoilless gun as much as two guns connected back-to-back, with one firing a round in the direction of the enemy and the other one firing a mass of lead balls and grease to counteract the recoil. Although the counterweight was designed to disperse upon firing, it obviously had to be pointed in a safe direction, The counterweight was typically lobbed rearward and over the top wing of the aircraft. The first Davis guns were smoothbores, but subsequent models were rifled to improve accuracy.

1914 patent for Davis gun Shell.

Experiments were conducted by the British Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the American Air Service. The Davis gun was supposed to be used against, for example, Zeppelins and U-boats. It was mounted on Handley Page O/100 and F.E.2b bombers, as well as on Curtiss HS-2L and H-16 flying boats after unsuccessful attempts to use N-1 and N-2 flying boats. Other experimental aircraft were also used.
In 1915, a Haris Booth at the Admiralty Air Department designed the A.D. Scout, a “lofty, but quite unsuitable” aircraft with a nacelle some ten feet over the ground carrying the upper wings. It was to have mounted the Davis gun for use against Zeppelins, but the development was not completed. The Davis gun was also thought of for the Blackburn Triplane, the P.V.2 seaplane and the Robey-Peters three-seat gun carrier, although these projects remained on the drawing board.
The A.D. Scout or "Swallow"

The RNAS and subsequently the RAF did conduct a series of trials with F.E.2B aircraft between December 1917 and June of 1918 to determine the best type of projectile to be used against a shallow submerged U-boat. It was found that the gun had to be fired from very low altitude and almost vertically to have a 12-pund shell penetrate a U-boat at a depth of 25 feet. The gun was thus deemed to be more suitable for use against surfaced submarines. In the end it was decided that the Davis gun was too heavy for practical use, and that bombs or 37mm conventional guns were preferred for use against u-boats. The Davis gun was also briefly mounted on US Navy subchasers.
The Davis gun was declared obsolete at the end of the First World War.


Norman Friedman. Naval Weapons of World War One

David P. Williams. Night Fighters: Hunters of the Reich

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Going to Fly a Kite in the First World War

The First World War saw much experimentation, and some old ideas were re-vamped as manned aviation matured. The manned kite concept had been tried on several occasions prior to the First World War. Captain B. F. S. Baden-Powell, the brother of the founder of the scouting movement, developed a man-carrying kite called the "Levitor", in the early 1890s. This was a hexagonal kite that was tried with some success, and subsequently sent to South Africa for use in the Boer War. However, it arrived to late for service. A Lawrence Hargrave developed a box kite in 1894, while Samuel Cody invented the man-carrying kite called the Bat. The War Office allowed him to conduct trials in 1904 and 1905 after some publicity stunts that involved crossing the English Channel in a boat drawn by a kite. The Bat actually entered service in 1906, but it was eventually replaced by aircraft. In August 1914, the British Army list included a kite section stationed at South Farnborough, although it was disbanded shortly efter the outbreak of war.

In the United States, Alexander Graham Bell developed a tetrahedal kite, which was tried but not developed between 1905 and up to 1907. The United States did continue experimenting with man-carrying kites throughout the First World War. Boston-based kite maker Samuel F. Perkins made a kite train that allowed an observer to be carried skyward, but the contraption was very susceptible to wind conditions. It was used for demonstrations on the homefront, but never deployed to a war zone.

However, France and Germany did use kites on several fronts. In 1909, the French War Ministry ordered a man-lifting kite, and a Charles Dollfus held a competition to determine the best type. The winged box kite system of Captain Madiot won the Contest, but Madiot was killed in an airplane accident a year later. Following the accident, the French War Ministry asked Engineering Captain Jacques-Theodore Saconney (1874-1935) to design a kite train that could be used up an altitude of 600 meters (1,800 feet). Saconney's concept included an automobile with a winch that was driven by the automoble Engine as well as a trailer. The system was accepted by the French authorities, and it was even installed on the cruiser Edgar Quinet in 1911. Exercises were conducted in 1913 under the supervision of Captain Saconney, who had become the Director of the Aerology Laboratory and Telephoto at Chalais-Meudon in 1912.

Trials on board the Edgar Quinet.

There were three photograhy sections in France when war broke out, besides Saconney's laboratory: one in Toul, one in Verdun and one in Paris. Each section consisted of three men: an office, a kite operator and a photographer. Captain Saconney was dispatched to the 1st Army in Epinal in the Vosges together with his laboratory, now a combined kite and balloon unit, since his work was considered quite valuable by the French Army.

Winch car.  

Vehicles of the combined kite and balloon Company.

Readying a French observation kite 

Captain Saconney, who by the way also served as the observer of the detachment, had at his disposal kites as well as some 1880 pattern Type E balloons and automobiles. He and his unit, the 30th Company, would travel between 20 and 40 kilometers each day to various sections of the front, but they had to return to Epinal every evening, or risk facing charges of desertion. Working with telephones and runners to relay observations, the unit becomes quite successful. Between September 27, 1914, and February 10, 1915, the 30th Company accumulates atotal of 172 hous of observation, out of which 48 hours consist of observing from kites. Some 80 artillery units were sighted and 67 were targeted. At some point a second company was formed, and this unit was sent to the North Sea coast. However, poor weather leads to few opportunities to observe enemy activity, and as balloons and aircraft become commonplace, the use of the kite units diminished. The French Army Headquarters disbanded the kite and balloon companies in March of 1916. Captain Saconney continued serving with the balloon units of the French Army. He enjoyed a distinguished career in civil aviation and academia after the war.

In 1914 Germany designed a folding box kite system for use on the Kaiser's u-boats. The kite was launched, and the observer in a basket was subsequently hauled up using a man-powered winch. The German Imperial Armed Forces did have a number of Felddrachenwarte for meteorological purposes all over Europé, but they seem to have used unmanned kites for weather observation at altitudes between 2,000 and 5,000 meters (6,000 to 15,000 feet). The naval equivalent was called Seedrachenwarte. The Austro-Hungarian Armed Forces had similar units.

Finally, the Imperial Russian Army used the Baden-Powell kite, while the Navy had Hargrave-type kites. A Lieutenant (N) Bolshev (Bolscheff) pioneered the use of observation kites after having worked with ballooons, but Little is known of the Russian experiences with kites.


Walter J. Boyne (Ed.). Air Warfare. An International Encyclopedia. Vol 1, A-L. Santa Barbera: Clio, 2002

Monday, November 6, 2017

Slovenian Aviators of the First World War

Since I am spending a couple of days in Slovenia's capitol, Ljubljana, I of course had to find out if there were any Slovene aces made during the First World War. The answer is unfortunately no, but several Slovenes manned the aircraft of K.u.K. Luftfahrtruppen, and some of them did shoot down enemy aircraft. Slovenes Anton Aussitz of Fliegerkompanie (Flik) 20, Johann Mayer (changed to Mejer after the war) of Flik 9 and Marko Vrbančič of Flik 29 all shot down one enemy aircraft, while Franz Zuzmann (sometimes spelled Žužman) of Flik 20 shot down two.

   Zuzmann (to the left) with his flying circus after the war.

Since Flik 20 had at least two Slovenes serving in the unit, let us focus a bit more on this particular unit. It was established in January of February of 1916 and almost immediately deployed to Vladimir-Volinsky in the north-western parts of today's Ukraine, also known as Volhynia. Flik 20 was commanded by a Captain Jenő Czapáry, and the unit was equipped with both Knoller-Albatros B.I two-seaters and probably later Hansa-Brandenburg C.I.

The most famous aviator of Flik 20 was Oberleutnant Kurt Nachod (1890-1918), who was the first Austrian to achieve five victories as an observer, and he shared two victories, a Farman on May 31, 1916, which was forced to land near Klewan, and another Farman on July 3, 1916, just north of Luck. The latter aircraft was sighted below Nachod and Zuzmann, and Nachod ordered Zuzmann to dive towards the Farman (the observer actually commanded the aircraft in the Austro-Hungarian and German air forces). However, Nachod's machine gun jammed, but he produced a carbine, and his fire was accurate enough to force even this Russian Farman to land. On both occasions, Nachod flew as an observer in Knoller-Albatros B.I 22.18, which was piloted by Zuzmann on at least July 3. Following a long career as an observer, Nachod did get a pilot's license, but he was badly injured after crashing while night flying on May 9, 1918. Nachod died of his injuries two days later.

Knoller-Albatros C.I

Zuzmann survived the war, and he participated in flying aircraft, amongst them a Albatros D.II, from parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire to Czechoslovakia where they were sold to the armed forces. He was also engaged in a flying cirkus. Zuzmann also opened a private airfield in 1930 after acquiring a 30-year lease on the Voeslau/Kottingbrunn airfield, some miles south of Wien-Aspern. The airfield was taken over by the German Luftwaffe after the annexation of Austria in 1938 and renamed Fliegerhorst Voeslau.

Kurt Nachod


Chris Chant. Austro-Hungarian Aces of World War 1. Osprey, 2002

Jon Guttman. Reconnaissance and Bomber Aces of World War 1. Osprey,

Dr. Csonkaréti Károly: A császári és királyi légierő

Justin D. Murphy. Military Aircraft, O,rigins to 1918. ABC-CLIO, 2005 

Dr. Martin O'Connor. Air Aces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 1914-1918. Flying Machines Press, 1986

Friday, August 4, 2017

Surrender, Paris!

On Sunday, August 30, 1914, Prussian Leutnant Ferdinand von Hiddessen and his observer dropped four or five 3 kg (6,6 pound) bombs from an Etrich Taube. The bombs landed around the quai de Valmy, and von Hiddessen finished his aerial attack by dropping a 1,80 meter long banner in the German national colors of black, white and red. The banner was attached to a rubber bag filled with sand to give it some weight as well as a pouch containing leaflets demanding the surrender of Paris. The leaflets stated the following: "The German Army is at the gates of Paris. You have nothing left but to surrender. Leutnant von Hiddessen".

                                            Illustration of von Hiddeesen flying over Paris.

Leutnant von Hiddessen was an experienced aviator by the standards of the day. He had taken part in air races in Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Mainz and Worms. On the evening of August 29, von Hiddessen was briefed by his commanding officer at the 1st Army about a reconnaissance mission that would take place next day. Leutnant von Hiddessen was to reconnoiter the position of French forces, but he was also to drop bombs over Paris, with the hope that noise and explosions would scare the population into surrender.

The morning of  August 30 was foggy, but by by 11.00 the fog had burnt off, and von Hiddessen took off from an airfield near St. Quentin together with his observer. He circled the airfield once before proceeding in a south-westerly direction. 70 minutes later the Taube reached the outskirts of Paris at an altitude of a dazzling 5,500 feet. Von Hiddessen crossed the Parisian skies a couple of times before releasing the first bomb at 12.45. The second fell minutes later in the courtyard of 107 quai Valmy, a home for the aged and the third landed on the pavement outside 66 rue des Marais, not far from the Boulevard Magenta. The final explosive crashed through the skylight of 5 and 7 rue des Récollets and failed to explode. All the bombs landed within a few hundred meters of each other in the 10th arrondissement of Paris.

Initial French reports from September 1 claimed that any damage caused was superficial, but later claims stated that one or two young Parisian women were killed, and they supposedly became the first of around 500 Parisians to die due to aerial bombardment or shells from long-range German artillery (the so-called "Paris Gun"). At least one horse succumbed to the bombardment as well. The banner and the leaflet bag was taken to the Prefecture of Police for examination. For some reason, von Hiddessen had misunderstood his orders and dropped the bag of leaflets instead of spreading out its contents. Ferdinand Von Hiddessen himself was shot down over Verdun a year later, sustaining serious wounds and spending the rest of the war in French captivity.

A horse supposedly killed by one of von Hiddessen's bombs.

The Parisians'responses to the bombing was mainly underwhelmed. The inhabitants of the city initially thought they were dealing with a gas explosion. Subsequent German aerial visitors arrived periodically during the late afternoon, leading the Parisians to label them "Five o'çlock Taubes", The Taube being a generic name for German aircraft in the early states of the First World War. Irritating as the bombings and spreading of propaganda leaflets may have been, Parisians were more curious than fearful, and they would be sitting outdoors at cafés and restaurants to place bets on where the bombs might land. In October 1914, British Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton became an eye witness to a German aerial attack on Paris, and he became so impressed that he spent money out of his own pocket to print British propaganda leaflets that were distributed over German targets. However, true to form Swinton's superiors were less than impressed, and a second leaflet drop was denied.

One of von Hiddessen's leaflets.

The Etrich Taube was a popular aircraft before the First World War and during the first year or so of that conflict. The Taube also had the distinction of being the first aircraft to be used for aerial bombarment when Italian Giulio Gavotti dropped a bomb at the Ain Zara oasis in Libya.


Walter J. Boyne. The Influence of Air Power Upon History.

Arunkumar Bhatt. Psychological Warfare and India.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Visiting St. Kitts, Part One

This August I happen to be spending time in St.Kitts and Nevis, a delightful duality of Caribbean delight, but one should not refrain to engage a bit in the surprisingly rich military history of these islands.

 The war memorial in Basseterre

Like so many parts of the British Empire, St. Kitts and Nevis, or St. Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla as it was known as a colony, contributed men to the monarch throughout most of the Empire’s existence. Kittitians have served the monarch since at least 1790, and Kittitian Private Samuel Hodge became the first black soldier to win the Victoria Cross (VC) in 1866. By the time the First World War broke out, a British West Indies Regiment had been established. A battalion from this regiment was deployed to Africa when war broke out, and it took part in the campaign to take the German colony of Cameroon. A second unit of the British West Indies Regiment made up of volunteers was formed in 1915, and it saw action in present-day Kenya and Tanzania. Following the campaigns in Africa, the volunteer unit fought in Jordan, Palestine, and then on the Western Front and finally in Italy. Many other soldiers from the West Indies fought in other British units. Up to 19,000 men from the West Indies are thought to have served in the British Armed Forces during the First World War. Eighty-one medals were won for bravery of which sixty-one were awarded to officers and men of the British West Indies Regiment.

The war memorial in Basseterre, the capitol of St. Kitts and Nevis, lists the names of 20 individuals who paid the ultimate price during the First World War, and another six who fell during the Second World War. The war memorial was unveiled in 1926 and relocated in 1955 to its current location where a new monument was built.

One of the men who fell, Captain Donald William Edwards, served with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). He was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the infantry on February 13, 1915. He was awarded the Military Cross (MC) on June 3, 1916, probably while serving with the Army Service Corps. There is unfortunately no citation in the London Gazette.

At some point thereafter, Edwards transferred to the RFC, and he was eventually posted to No. 45 Squadron in late 1916 or 1917. This unit was mainly equipped with Sopwith 1½ Strutters flying in the scout role, although it also had a few Nieuport 20 two-seaters, and both of these types would be facing serious difficulties with the German scouts in the months to come. It should be added that No. 45 squadron included a number of future prominent airmen, including a flight commander by the name of Arthur Harris, who eventually became the commanding officer of No. 45 Squadron, and a quarter of a century later the leader of RAF Bomber Command.

At 09:10AM on April 6, 1917, just three days before the Battle of Arras, three 11/2 Strutters of No. 45 Squadron took off on a reconnaissance mission over enemy territory. They unfortunately ran into Albatros scouts from Jasta 30, including Leutnant Jochim von Bertrab in his characteristic purple Albatros adorned with a comet. Von Betrab had already shot down two Martinsyde G100 “Elephant” bombers from No. 27 Squadron that morning, and he was not done. As von Bertrab attacked the “vic” of 11/2 Strutters at 10:48AM above Becq, two of the aircraft collided, and the crews were killed. Another 11/2 Strutter crashed at 10:50AM, although this Sopwith was not claimed by von Bertrab – perhaps it was shot down by another pilot of Jasta 30. One of the the 11/2 Strutters, A2381, was crewed by Captain Edwards as the observer and Lieutenant Colin St George Campbell as the pilot. Edwards was 26 years old, and he left a wife in London. He was buried at the Tournai Communal Cemetery in Hainaut, Belgium.

Von Bertrab
The effects of the First World War were felt on the island of St. Kitts as well. The Central Sugar Factory had been opened in 1912, and it replaced individual mills and boiling houses throughout the island with a centralized processing plant. The First World War saw sugar prices increase, and the sugar industry went from waning inefficiency to profitable production. 

Joseph Cephas, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. Died 10/03/1919. Buried: Magdelan Hill Cemetery Winchester England. Son of Mrs Rebecca Carey, Mansions Village, St. Kitts.
H. D. (Harrington Douty) Edwards. D.S.O. Royal Navy. Missing presumed dead 11/03/1916. Memorial: Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Hampshire, England. Eldest son of a District Medical Officer in Antigua. He is also recorded as having been awarded a D.S.O. .
James L. E. R. Lake, Border Regiment. Died 24/08/1915. Buried Eas Mudros Military Cemetery, Limnos Island, Greece. Son of James Louis Engelbert Lake and Henrietta Theresa Lake, of Church St., St. John's, Antigua, British West Indies.
Joseph A. McKoy, British West Indies Regiment. Died 16/10/1918. Buried Kantara War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt.
Donald (Joseph) Patrice. British West Indies Regiment. Died 15/03/1919. Buried Alexandria (Hadra) Memorial Cemetery, Egypt. Son of Alexander Patrice and Alice Nicholas, his wife, of Roseau, Dominica, British West Indies.
Edward Hope Ross, Middlesex regiment. Died 01/07/1916. Missing presumed dead. Memorial Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France. Son of Mr. and Mrs. D. Hope Ross, of Port of Spain, Trinidad, British West Indies.
Robert L(awrence) Woolward. British West Indies Regiment. Died 10/09/1918. Buried Alexandria (Hadra) Memorial Cemetery, Egypt. Son of Robert Tapley Woolward and Mary Evangeline Thomas (his wife) of St. Kitts, British West Indies.

Probable identification:

James Daniel, British West Indies Regiment. Died 09/01/1917. Buried: Kantara War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt. The only James or J. Daniel listed with a West Indian connection - his regiment.
Donald Edwards, M.C., 45th Squadron, Royal Flying Corp. Died 06/04/1917. Buried: Tournai Communal Cemetery Allied Extension, Hainaut, Belgium. His wife is noted as living in London, England. He is the only Donald or D. Edwards listed with an M.C. Military Cross.
Richard T(heophilus) White. British West Indies Regiment. Died 30/09/1918. Buried: Ismailia War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt. Son of Charles and Jane Davis White, of Antigua, British West Indies.

Unable To Identify:
Arthur Dickenson: Six A. or Arthur Dickensons, all with no additional information pointing to a connection with St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.
 John Foreman. Nine J. or John Foremans, all with no additional information pointing to a connection with St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.
Edmund Gordon Nine E. or Edmund Gordons, all with no additional information pointing to a connection with St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla
Hywel Herbert Jones. The name of Jones produces many results and there was no information pointing to a connection with St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.#
Joseph A. Lewis. The name of Joseph Lewis produces many results and there was no information pointing to a connection with St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.
Edward Mills. Many E. or Edward Mills', all with no additional information pointing to a connection with St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.
Herbert Mitchell.  Many H. or Herbert Mitchells, all with no additional information pointing to a connection with St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla
Horace Veira. No Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) record
Ivor Wakefield. No CWGW record
William C. Wattley. No CWGC record

It should be noted that a significant amount of British Armed Forces records were destroyed during the Blitz of the Second World War.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

A visit to Florence, the birthplace of ace Giulio Lega

Since I’m on a short vacation in Italy, and more specifically Florence, it seemed a good idea to spend an evening after a nice dinner to write a paragraph or so about a First World War ace from this lovely city: Giulio Lega.

Lega was born in Florence on November 12, 1892. He studied medicine when the war broke out in Europe, but he was accepted for officer’s training in 1915 as Italy joined the conflict. Giulio Lega was a tall man for his time , and he was selected as an “extended infantryman” with the Grenadiers of the 2o Reggimento.

Giulio Lega fought with his regiment at the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo between November 10 and December 2, 1915. The fighting was bitter and inconclusive, but on November 20, Lega was awarded the War Merit Cross for valor. Lega continued fighting in north-eastern Italy, and he was awarded the Bronze Medal for Military Valor after close-combat fighting that month. The medal was awarded on the battlefield on May 30, 1916.

That summer, Lega volunteered to be trained as an aviator. He qualified as a pilot on September 1, 1916, and he was given his pilot’s license on November 1, 1916. Lega finished up his pilot’s training on January 30, 1917, and he was posted to the 21a Squadriglia, a reconnaissance unit, where he qualified on Savoia-Pomilio SP.2 two-seaters on February 14, 1917. He was also promoted to Tenente. Lega continued serving as a reconnaissance pilot between May and November of 1917, and he was awarded the Silver Medal for Military Valor for his service. He remained with the 21a Squadriglia until it was withdrawn after the Battle of Capporetto, after which he was selected for fighter pilot training.
 Savoia-Pomilio SP. 2

On November 16, 1917, Lega began fighter pilot training at Malpensa outside Milan after which he went for gunnery training. He passed on December 27, but only with a “mediocre” rating. Lega’s next posting would be with the 76a Squadriglia, and he would fly in all 46 combat sorties with the squadron. His first victory came near Col d’Asiago on March 17, a victory he shared with two other Italian pilots, and on March 25 he split his second victory over Montello with pilots Fanti and Retinò. The final Austro-Hungarian offensive led to a bout of activity, and a third shared victory came over Passagno on June 24 against a Hansa-Brandenburg C.I from Flik 2d. The next day, June 25, saw even more action around 1030 as Lega shot down an unidentified enemy scout over Mareno di Piave together with Tenente Silvio Scaroni and Sergente Romolo Ticconi, both of whom were aces. Lega finished off the scrap by shooting down an Albatros D.III, once again together with Scaroni and Ticconi. This action earned Lega the Silver Medal for Valor. In July of 1918, Lega was transferred to the 81a Squadriglia, and he served with this unit up to the end of the war.

While flying with the 76a Squadriglia, Lega flew a silver dope-colored Hanriot armed with two Vickers machine guns instead of one. This reduced the maneuverability of the Hanriot, but apparently not enough to have several skilled Italian pilots choose this option for increased firepower. The personal aircraft of Lega was adorned with a flaming red grenade to honor his initial service as a grenadier in the 2o Reggimento.

Following the end of the First World War, Lega graduated from the University of Bologna in July of 1920. He remained in the Air Force Reserves and served with the Servizi Aerei Speciali  during the Second World War. He spent much of his subsequent career with the Italian Chamber of Commerce, and when he died on 11 July 1973, he was still a medical consultant to the Italian parliament.