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St. Mihiel, Billy Mitchell, and the Balloon Buster

alvin york billy mitchell frank luke hugh trenchard

First Balloon Busted

Frank LukeWell, not like it was the first one ever. But it was Frank Luke's first balloon, on September 12th, as part of the St. Mihiel campaign. "I'm going after the balloons!" he said, and covered by his friend Joseph Wehner, with whom he had strategized about balloons, he did.

Maybe in a couple weeks we will have time for the full explanation of why balloons were especially difficult, rather than especially poppable, but for now, just note that the career of the Arizona Balloon Buster had begun. He would score 18 victories by the end of September, which is all the more amazing when you consider his first aerial combat was only three weeks ago.

Figuring Out How to Use the Aerial Weapon

Back in April, when the British Royal Flying Corps had turned into the Royal Air Force, the nature of aerial warfare was changing from individual dogfights into squadron vs. squadron. At this time, Sir Hugh Trenchard got permission to organize the British Independent Air Force, which would attack independently of ground operations. The purpose was to do to Germany what Germany almost did to England by attacking behind battle lines, so that bombing would damage equipment and morale and force the enemy to draw guns and aircraft back from the front lines. Aircraft in large numbers would become a strategic, not just tactical, weapon, affecting the big picture rather than only the here-and-now.

Brother Men Who Fly

This use of masses of aircraft working together as a separate weapon from ground forces had been going on over the early summer. In May, American Colonel Billy Mitchell attached himself to Trenchard for three days to learn what Trenchard meant by saying "An airplane is an offensive and not a defensive weapon." Trenchard and Mitchell found each other to be kindred spirits, and by the end of the summer, Mitchell was working on ways to use yet more aircraft as a separate weapon, supporting a ground offensive. In late July, the decision was made to attack St. Mihiel, and in late August Billy Mitchell was assembling the largest number of aircraft yet coordinated for one operation.

How many? 89 British, American, and French squadrons, or 1481 aircraft (701 fighters, 366 observers, 323 day bombers, and 91 night bombers), flying under Mitchell's command (except for the Independent Air Force, which, as suited its name, was to take his advice but not his commands).  

St. Mihiel

12 September 1918 opened with a four-hour bombardment by artillery before 500,000 American doughboys came out of their trenches. Or, in the more colorful words of Alvin York, "Early on the morning of the twelfth the guns let down a most awful heavy barrage, louder than a thunderstorm. And at daybreak we went over the top." Above them flew two brigades of 400 aircraft each (the rest on reserve or for special duty), one brigade forcing enemy aircraft to fight over a 12-mile stretch of front, while the other brigade struck at the rear of the the St. Mihiel salient. 

Mitchell's air force attacked railroads, large concentrations of troops and communications; took observations and photographs; directed artillery fire; and strafed troops and supply lines as the German troops retreated. 

Weather, Mechanical, and Other Opposition

Unfortunately, heavy rains and low clouds, some of the worst weather seen in months, were a major problem on the first day, keeping aircraft below 1000 meters and mostly below 500 meters. Non-standardized parts also caused problems; .30-caliber American ammunition in Spads didn't work well with guns made for .303 French ammunition.

The Germans also fought back hard; Jagdgeschwader 2 lost only two of its aircraft for 81 Allied aircraft during the St. Mihiel operation. But then, one of the squadrons (Jastas) of Jagdgeschwader 2 was the blue tail squadron. According to War Bird Ace: The Great War Exploits of Capt. Field E. Kindley, "The blue-tail pilots were considered among the very best, perhaps even better than Richthofen's Circus, and many an Allied pilot dreaded seeing them drop out of a cloud onto an Allied formation." German shortages of everything caused Germany to stress aircraft quality over quantity. Though overall Germany was losing, individual pilots would find themselves fighting against the superior Fokker D.VII, so "the British and American pilots engaging the German air force on their front sectors found their missions were as difficult, stressful, and dangerous as ever."

Infantry Victory at St. Mihiel

The St. Mihiel battle was a success for the Allies. Or, as Alvin York said,

The St. Mihiel offensive must have been as complete a drive and as well arranged as ever could have been by any general of any army. It was a great success. The feeling of the majority of the boys was one hundred per cent. for General Pershing. As a whole the Army was back of him, believed in him, and would follow him anywhere. They seemed to think as a general he was a right-smart success.

Air Victory at St. Mihiel

Billy MitchellBut in the bigger picture, looking back over a century of military aviation, St. Mihiel was far more of a victory for the "Father of the US Air Force" (though he would not live to see the vindication of his efforts in the creation of the USAF). Pershing had not really trusted Mitchell, telling Trenchard at one point that "natural airmen have a visionary faith in three-dimensional warfare that owes more to intuition than to the teachings of West Point."  But Mitchell's vision had proved correct; as Sky Battle: 1914-1918: The Story of Aviation in World War I explains the outcome:

Colonel Mitchell had learned his employment of airpower had worked out exactly as he had hoped and anticipated. The airplane as a weapon was finally reaching full maturity. The United States, which had entered the war in fourteenth place among the world aviation powers, was able to provide advanced air strategy even if she could not supply superior aircraft.

Do Not Think That We Are Not on the Job

While Mitchell compared the general staff's knowledge of aviation to a hog's knowledge of skating, he was also concerned about the average infantryman's understanding of aviation, in particular that they didn't know their own allies' insignia. Apparently they expected a star instead of a cockade, since the insignia of the First Aero Squadron with Pershing in New Mexico in 1916 had been a star. (A red one. Very much like, well, Soviet markings - but the Soviet Union was still less than a year old at this point.)

Mitchell launched his own propaganda campaign, leafleting American infantrymen with encouragements to communicate through signals with airmen and explanations such as 

We do not hike through the mud with you, but there are discomforts in our work as bad as mud, but we won't let rain, storms, Archies [anti-aircraft fire] nor Boches [German] planes prevent our getting there with the goods. 
Do not think that we are not on the job when you cannot see us - most of our planes work so far in front that they cannot be seen from the lines.
Some enemy planes may break through our airplane barrage in front of you, and may sometimes bomb and machine-gun you, but in the last month we have dropped ten tons of bombs for every one the Boche has dropped. For every Boche plane that you see over you, the Boche sees ten Allied planes over him. For every balloon that he burns, we burn eight.

And, in an instruction that many higher-ups must have wished the infantry had when the Red Baron died,

Whenever a Boche plane is brought down in your sector, do not collect souvenirs from it; you may remove an article or marking that would have given valuable information to us. If Boche aviators are not dead when they land, wait ten minutes before approaching within one hundred feet of the plane after they have left it; sometimes they start a time bomb. DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING IN A BOCHE PLANE - they sometimes carry innocent-looking infernal machines.


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