CHAPTER XIV. ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUNS. MOBILE WEAPONS.
When the airship and the aeroplane became accepted units of warfare it was only natural that efforts should be concentrated upon the evolution of ways and means to compass their destruction or, at least, to restrict their field of activity. But aircraft appeared to have an immense advantage in combat. They possess virtually unlimited space in which to manoeuvre, and are able to select the elevation from which to hurl their missiles of destruction.
There is another and even more important factor in their favour. A projectile fired, or even dropped, from a height, say of 5,000 feet, is favourably affected by the force of gravity, with the result that it travels towards the earth with accumulating energy and strikes the ground with decisive force.
On the other hand, a missile discharged into space from a weapon on the earth has to combat this action of gravity, which exercises a powerful nullifying influence upon its flight and velocity, far in excess of the mere resistance offered by the air. In other words, whereas the projectile launched from aloft has the downward pull of the earth or gravitational force in its favour, the shell fired from the ground in the reverse direction has to contend against this downward pull and its decelerating effect.
At the time when aircraft entered the realms of warfare very little was known concerning the altitudes to which projectiles could be hurled deliberately. Certain conclusive information upon this point was available in connection with heavy howitzer fire, based on calculations of the respective angles at which the projectile rose into the air and fell to the ground, and of the time the missile took to complete its flight from the gun to the objective. But howitzer fire against aircraft was a sheer impossibility: it was like using a six-inch gun to kill a fly on a window pane at a thousand yards' range. Some years ago certain experiments in aerial firing with a rifle were undertaken in Switzerland. The weapon was set vertically muzzle upwards and discharged. From the time which elapsed between the issue of the bullet from the muzzle until it struck the earth it was possible to make certain deductions, from which it was estimated that the bullet reached an altitude of 600 feet or so. But this was merely conjecture.
Consequently when artillerists entered upon the study of fighting air-craft with small arms and light guns, they were compelled to struggle in the dark to a very pronounced extent, and this darkness was never satisfactorily dispelled until the present war, for the simple reason that there were no means of getting conclusive information. The German armament manufacturers endeavoured to solve the problem by using smoking shells or missiles fitted with what are known as tracers. By following the ascensional path of the projectiles as revealed by the smoke it was possible to draw certain conclusions. But these were by no means convincing or illuminating, as so many factors affected the issue.
Despite the peculiar and complex difficulties associated with the problem it was attacked some what boldly. In this trying field of artillery research the prominent German armament manufacturers, Krupp of Essen and Ehrhardt of Dusseldorf, played a leading part, the result being that before the airship or the aeroplane was received within the military fold, the anti-aircraft gun had been brought into the field of applied science. The sudden levelling-up serves to illustrate the enterprise of the Germans in this respect as well as their perspicacity in connection with the military value of aircraft.
Any gun we can hope to employ against aircraft with some degree of success must fulfil special conditions, for it has to deal with a difficult and elusive foe. Both the lighter-than-air and the heavier than-air craft possess distinctive features and varying degrees of mobility. Taking the first-named, the facility with which it can vary its altitude is a disconcerting factor, and is perplexing to the most skilful gunner, inasmuch as he is called upon to judge and change the range suddenly.
On the other hand, the artilleryman is favoured in certain directions. The range of utility of the airship is severely limited. If its avowed mission is reconnaissance and conclusive information concerning the disposition of forces, artillery and so forth is required, experience has proved that such work cannot be carried out satisfactorily or with any degree of accuracy at a height exceeding 5,000 feet, and a distance beyond six miles. But even under these circumstances the climatic conditions must be extremely favourable. If the elements are unpropitious the airship must venture nearer to its objective. These data were not difficult to collect, inasmuch as they were more or less available from the results of military observations with captive balloons, the conditions being somewhat similar. With the ordinary captive balloon it has been found that, in clear weather, a radius of about 3 3/4 miles at the maximum elevation constitutes its range of reliable utility.