Updated: Nov 11, 2018
For the last three months, men of the 12th Aero Squadron have been fighting and dying while performing four major mission types for the Allies - Artillery Adjustment, Photographic, Reconnaissance and Infantry Contact.
It seems appropriate while the men of the 12th spent this week recuperating from the Aisne-Marne Campaign, we take a few moments learning a little bit more about the missions they flew.
When the 12th first began flying combat missions, Artillery Adjustment was their primarily task. They even formed their insignia to represent this mission. [learn more here]. Artillery batteries were located well beyond visual range of their targets and could not see where their shells landed. They needed someone in the area to tell them this information so they could adjust their settings to hit the target.
This is where the 12th Aero Squadron came in. All observers were trained artillery spotters. Once in the air near the target, the observer signaled the battery using a wireless telegraph he was ready. This telegraph was powered by a wind-driven generator aboard the aircraft. Once the first few shells landed the observer then telegraphed back the necessary adjustments helping the battery to hit its target.
As the war progressed, the 12th was tasked with this mission less and less to the point it became a minor role for the 12th. A somewhat ironic outcome considering the meaning of their insignia.
Adjusting the artillery was useful but only when commanders knew the location and intentions of the enemy. To ascertain this, the reconnaissance mission was developed. A reconnaissance plane performed the role of a forward scout.
The observer did just that, observed the enemy and recorded his location and activities. He and the pilot then flew over headquarters to drop the report before returning the Front to conduct more reconnaissance. The observer placed the message in a can with a large streamer to help men below track and recover the message.
You can see an example of such a report below. Lt Follette of the 12th Aero Squadron wrote this report.
Reconnaissance reports were useful for their expediency but detailed photos of enemy positions and preparations were invaluable for planning, map making and tracking enemy movements over time. For photography missions, crews flew high at altitudes of approximately 12,000 to 18,000 feet. Most photos were taken directly over the target looking straight down. This is known as a nadir photo. There was also some experimentation with oblique photos (photos taken at an angle).
Photo missions were performed over enemy territory and depending on the objective, sometimes very deep into enemy territory.
To take photos in those days, the pilot had to fly perfectly level while the observer photographed the target. Flying level had the unfortunate effect of creating a predictable target for anti-aircraft batteries below. While the pilot was thus occupied, the observer was busy taking photos. Cameras were either floor mounted or hand held. They were also very bulky equipment further complicating the observer’s task.
The observers changed out glass plates between photos if using a manual system, or after using up all the plates when using an automatic system. Great care had to be taken to properly take the photo at just the right time or it would be useless. Observers had to perform this task while also keeping an eye out for enemy aircraft.
Of the four mission types, the Infantry Contact Patrol was likely the most dangerous. During combat operations on the Front, commanders had to know the position of their troops in order to identify to track progress, identify weak points, press advantages as they became available and more importantly prevent friendly artillery from landing on his own troops.
Obtaining this information required communication. In those days wireless telegraphs were impractical for troops on the move. Telegraph lines could not keep up with advancements and were vulnerable to artillery bombardment. Runners were equally vulnerable and a slow means of communication. The only remaining expedient and reliable means left to commanders was the airplane.
Aircrews employed a system of visual communication to locate troop positions. The observation aircraft flew along the expected area and launched a series of flares to signaling troops to identify their positions. Troops arranged white panels using a pre-coordinated codes to communicate their position and status.
Ground troops needed to be well trained to perform this task. They needed to not only distinguish between friendly and enemy aircraft, but also how to display their panels while under enemy fire. Aircrew soon discovered, American ground troops were not well trained in these matters and often hid from friendly observation aircraft or worse, fired upon them. Even well-trained units found it difficult to display these panels under withering enemy fire.
These realities forced aircrew to fly at treetop height through the crossfire of no man’s land in order to identify troops by their uniforms. As one can imagine, this exposed the aircrews to small arms, anti-aircraft batteries and enemy aircraft patrols. What is more remarkable? The Salmson 2A2, the aircraft the 12th Aero Squadron flew, possessed no armor to protect the aircrew. Only by metal tubing and fabric stood between them and bullets or shrapnel.
Lastly these men also flew a secondary mission - escort.
Fighter squadrons were fully occupied battling German fighters and were often unable to protect reconnaissance aircraft. Out of survival, the 12th assigned its own aircrews to protect its mission aircraft. This often led to aerial dogfights with some of the best German fighter planes, though without similar recognition as the fighter pilots. Observation aircrews had not only be proficient in the art of observation but air to air combat.