CHAPTER XIX. THE NAVIES of THE AIR

Less than three years ago the momentous and spectacular race among the Powers of Europe for the supremacy of the air began. At first the struggle was confined to two rivals - France and Germany - but as time progressed and the importance of aerial fleets was recognised, other nations, notably Great Britain, entered the field.

Germany obtained an advantage. Experiment and research were taken up at a point which had been reached by French effort; further experiments and researches were carried out in German circles with secret and feverish haste, with the result that within a short time a pronounced degree of efficiency according to German ideals had been attained. The degree of perfection achieved was not regarded with mere academic interest; it marked the parting of the ways: the point where scientific endeavour com manded practical appreciation by turning the success of the laboratory and aerodrome into the channel of commercial manufacture. In other words, systematic and wholesale production was undertaken upon an extensive scale. The component parts were standardised and arrangements were completed with various establishments possessed of the most suitable machinery to perfect a programme for turning out aeronautical requirements in a steady, continuous stream from the moment the crisis developed.

The wisdom of completing these arrangements in anticipation is now apparent. Upon the outbreak of hostilities many German establishments devoted to the production of articles required in the infinite ramifications of commerce found themselves deprived of their markets, but there was no risk that their large plants would be brought to a standstill: the Government ordered the manufacture of aeroplane parts and motors upon an extensive scale. In this manner not only were the industrial establishments kept going, but their production of aeronautical requirements relieved those organisations devoted to the manufacture of armaments, so that the whole resources and facilities of these could be concentrated upon the supply of munitions of war.

In France the air-fleet, although extensive upon the outbreak of war, was somewhat heterogeneous. Experiment was still being pursued: no type had met with definite official recognition, the result being that no arrangements had been completed for the production of one or more standard types upon an elaborate scale comparable with that maintained by Germany. In fact some six months after the outbreak of war there was an appreciable lack of precision on this point in French military. Many of the types which had established their success were forbidden by military decree as mentioned in a previous chapter, while manufacturing arrangements were still somewhat chaotic.

Great Britain was still more backward in the new movement. But this state of affairs was in a measure due to the division of the Fourth Arm among the two services. A well-organised Government manufactory for the production of aeroplanes and other aircraft necessities had been established, while the private manufacturers had completed preparations for wholesale production. But it was not until the Admiralty accepted responsibility for the aerial service that work was essayed in grim earnest.

The allocation of the aerial responsibilities of Great Britain to the Admiralty was a wise move. Experience has revealed the advantages accruing from the perfection of homogeneous squadrons upon the water, that is to say groups of ships which are virtually sister-craft of identical speed, armament, and so on, thus enabling the whole to act together as a complete effective unit. As this plan had proved so successful upon the water, the Admiralty decided to apply it to the fleet designed for service in the air above.

At the time this plan of campaign was definitely settled Great Britain as an aerial power was a long way behind her most fomidable rival, but strenuous efforts were made to reduce the handicap, and within a short while the greater part of this leeway had been made up. Upon the outbreak of war Great Britain undoubtedly was inferior to Germany in point of numbers of aircraft, but the latter Power was completely outclassed in efficiency, and from the point of view of PERSONNEL. The British had developed the waterplane as an essential auxiliary to naval operations, and here was in advance of her rival, who had practically neglected this line of eeperiment and evolution, resting secure in the assurance of her advisers that the huge dirigibles would be adequate for all exigencies on the water.

Indeed, when war was declared, all the Powers were found more or less wanting so far as their aerial fleets were concerned. If Germany's huge aerial navy had been in readiness for instant service when she invaded Belgium, she would have overcome that little country's resistance in a far shorter time and with much less waste of life. It was the Belgians who first brought home to the belligerents the prominent part that aircraft were destined to play in war, and the military possibilities of the aeroplane. True, the Belgians had a very small aerial navy, but it was put to work without delay and accomplished magnificent results, ascertaining the German positions and dispositions with unerring accuracy and incredible ease, and thus enabling the commander of the Belgian Army to dispose his relatively tiny force to the best advantage, and to offer the most effective resistance.

Great Britain's aerial navy, while likewise some what small, was also ready for instant service. The British Expeditionary force was supported by a very efficient aerial fleet, the majority of the vessels forming which flew across the Channel at high speed to the British headquarters in France so as to be available directly military preparations were begun, and the value of this support proved to be inestimable, since it speedily demoralised the numerically superior enemy.