The Belgian Air Force during WW1

The Belgian Air Arm retreated with the Army and tried to help as much as possible with the aeroplanes still available for air observation in support of the artillery. However the bad weather of the winter season did not help and severely limited air activity.

The stabilisation of the front during the last months of 1914 permitted the air service to repair and replace existing machines. The French delivered new Bleriot’s and Farman’s. A depot and rear base was established in Calais-Beaumarais on French territory as well as operational airfields in Houtem & Ten Bogaerde
(Koksijde) on Belgian soil. 

In the first months of 1915 the air service received the first Voisin aeroplanes from the French, acquired cameras designed for air to ground photography and started to equip the existing fleet with machine guns and bombing equipment.

In March 1915, Roland Garros operated from Dunkirk on the Flanders Front with his specially equipped Morane Saulnier fighter allowing him to fire his machine gun through the propeller circle. This invention was decisive in the development of the fighter. However, after many initial successes Garros was finally captured with his aeroplane on 18 April 1915 a few kilometres of Kortrijk

In March 1915, the term of Belgian "Military Aviation" was used officially for the first time.

The squadron constituted in Antwerpen with both French & Belgian crews evolved to form the French C74 squadron. The unit was based in Hondschoote on French territory flying Caudron GIII and later GIV and RXI with French colours flown by mixed French-Belgian crews. 

Squadrons of the British RNAS were also based in Dunkirk and sometime operated from Ten Bogaerde (Koksijde). These units operated along the Belgian coast against the installations of the German Navy. British pilots operated also deep inside the country against the Zeppelin bases and airfields Germans had established in towns like Oostende, Gent or Brussels. It was a RNAS pilot who in June 1915 shot down Zeppelin LZ37 near Gent on the way back from a bombing mission over Great Britain

 

 

A Farman from the Belgian Air service captured after the fall of Antwerpen

The Belgian Air Arm retreated with the Army and tried to help as much as possible with the aeroplanes still available for air observation in support of the artillery. However the bad weather of the winter season did not help and severely limited air activity.

The stabilisation of the front during the last months of 1914 permitted the air service to repair and replace existing machines. The French delivered new Bleriot’s and Farman’s. A depot and rear base was established in Calais-Beaumarais on French territory as well as operational airfields in Houtem & Koksijde (Ten Bogaerde) on Belgian soil. 

In the first months of 1915 the air service received the first Voisin aeroplanes from the French, acquired cameras designed for air to ground photography and started to equip the existing fleet with machine guns and bombing equipment.

In March 1915, Roland Garros operated from
Dunkirk on the Flanders Front with his specially equipped Morane Saulnier fighter allowing him to fire his machine gun through the propeller circle. This invention was decisive in the development of the fighter. However, after many initial successes Garros was finally captured with his aeroplane on 18 April 1915 a few kilometres of Kortrijk

In March 1915, the term of Belgian "Military Aviation" was used officially for the first time.

The squadron constituted in Antwerpen with both French & Belgian crews evolved to form the French C74 squadron. The unit was based in Hondschoote on French territory flying Caudron GIII and later GIV and RXI with French colours flown by mixed French-Belgian crews. 

Squadrons of the British RNAS were also based in Dunkirk and sometime operated from Koksijde - Ten Bogaerde. These units operated along the Belgian coast against the installations of the German Navy. British pilots operated also deep inside the country against the Zeppelin bases and airfields Germans had established in towns like Oostende, Gent or Brussels. It was a RNAS pilot who in June 1915 shot down Zeppelin LZ37 near Gent on the way back from a bombing mission over Great Britain.

 


The Calais Beaumarais Air depot in France 

 

During the whole conflict Belgian military aviation had some trouble in acquiring the most modern aircraft from French or British sources. However BE2c's, various marks of Farman, RE8's, Nieuport X and XI were finally delivered. The first Nieuport fighter arrived on June 1915. Lieutenant Crombez flew the first true fighter mission on 26 August 1915. 



Due to his small force, the Belgian Military Aviation mainly specialised in air to ground photography and observation for the support of the Army. Bombing missions and audacious raids were sometime mounted. This is the case in July 1915, when the Belgians, French and British military aviation united their forces to bomb the Germans airfields near the front. 

At the start of 1916, the Belgian air force counted 6 squadrons: 4 for air observation, air photography and bombing while two were pure fighter squadrons. With the appearance of increasingly sophisticated Germans fighters, the Belgians received some Nieuport 23s. 

Some individuals as Jan Olieslagers or Commandant Fernand Jacquet (flying Farmans) shot down some German aircraft in protection of Belgian observation aircraft.
 

The group was just established when the Germans started their last offensive of the war on 21 March. The German air service was again present in great number in the sky of Flanders from airfields in Vlissegem, Gontrode, Oostakker en Mariakerke. 

During 1916 the belligerents started to attack the observation balloons used to direct the artillery. In October two Belgian balloons were so shot down by German fighters.

In March 1917, the first German Gotha bombers arrived at Gent to form the “England Geschwader”. The main task of this unit was to bomb the United Kingdom. In 1917 the first Fokker Dr1 appeared in the German Air Force and the Sopwith Triplane in the RNAS squadrons based in Dunkirk operating on the Belgian front. 

The Belgian observation squadrons were still flying outdated Farman’s. Some squadrons were working exclusively for large Army units. The first operational use of radio transmissions between observation aircraft and ground force in the Belgian Air Corps occurred in 1917. 

On May 1ST, 1917 future ace, Willy Coppens, took part in his first air combat. He started the war as an infantryman. He transferred to the Air Corps in 1915 and was trained at Hendon (UK) and in Etampes (F.) where a Belgian flying school was installed. He joined the front first as an observer pilot flying Sopwith 1 ½ Strutters before joining a fighter squadron.

Another future ace won his first victory on 15 March 1917. Edmond Thieffry would finish the war with 10 victories. He also started the war as an infantryman being a lawyer in civilian life. He joined the Belgian Air Corp in July 1915 at Etampes where he learned to fly.

The period 1916 - 1917 saw the appearance of personal insignias painted on aircraft to ease recognition in flight. Amongst the insignias used were comets, thistles, little paper horses and dragons… Some of these personal insignias still survive today as squadron badges of the modern Belgian Air Force. 

In the first months of 1917, Germans Jastas were very active on the Northern French front and in the
Ieper sector. Some Belgians aircraft fell victim to the German fighters. The Belgians were also facing fighters from the Marine-Feldjagdstaffel N°1 based in Nieuwmunster and operating along the coast. 

On May 4th, the crew Henri Crombez - Louis Robin from the 6th Squadron mounted a daring raid to
Brussels. They took-off at dawn and reached the town to drop a Belgian flag. They came back overflying German airfields in Sint Agatha Berchem and Gontrode. 

To better understand the situation on the front, King Albert did not hesitate to fly in a Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter as an observer on 6 July 1917. He was surely the only chief of state to have flow over the front during WW1. 

July 1917 saw intense air activity above the
Flanders frontline with the Belgian Air corps flying an average of 120 sorties per day. Germans installed new airfields in small Flemish villages as Aartrijke, Varsenare, Wijnendale and Snellegem. Observation aircraft were extensively used to watch railway activity, troop movement and artillery moves behind the frontlines to detect premises of ground offensives. 

In August 1917 Belgian pilots received their first Hanriot HD1. The small fighter was not in great favour with the French but would prove to be a good acquisition for the Belgian aces especially Willy Coppens who won most of his victories on this single machine gun equipped biplane.

 


Hanriot HD1 of the Thistle squadron. The squadron still exit and now flies F16's from Florennes Air Base. 

 

On August 15th,  1917 the third battle of Ieper started. Although this sector was defended by Commonwealth troops, the Belgian Army and its Air Corps was implied in the fights as the Belgian sector was close to the British sector. 

The French ace Georges Guynemer also operated over the
Flanders front and was finally shot down near Poelkapelle on 11 September 1917. Another Ace, German this time, was killed on 30 July. Werner Voss credited with 48 victories was shot down near his base at Marke (Kortrijk).

In September, Sopwith Camels were delivered to the Belgians. Jan Olieslagers would fly Camels until the end of the war. 

With the bad season arriving, the frontline went again calmer. However in the sky, the British were still very active seeking confrontation with the Germans by means of offensive patrols over and behind the frontline. They moved some squadrons to airfields in Poperinge, Abele and Proven in order to be close to the front.

On 23rd December 1917, the French squadron C74 who had co-operated with the Belgians since the dark days of 1914 left the Belgian sector to be a fully French operated unit.

In early 1918 the British, French and Belgian Headquarters reorganised to better use air observation and air photography. Each army became responsible of the observation on one sector of the front. The Belgians received the responsibility of the sector at the west of Oostende-Vijfwegen railroads. Co-operation and information exchange in the air was not new but it was the first time it was specifically organised.
Some Belgian crews specialised in air to ground photography. Jaumotte had developed such an expertise that the British or French HQ on many occasions asked pictures taken specifically by Jaumotte.

In 1918 the Germans tried for the last time to obtain decisive victory at the Western front before the American troops could be available in force. In the air before the arrival in mass of the US Air Service the balance was already in favour of the allies with the following figures in June 1918 :

France: 3857 aircraft 
Commonwealth: 2630 aircraft 
USA : 180 aircraft 
Belgium 127 aircraft 
Germany 2551 aircraft

The most significant fact for the Belgian Air Corps in the first month of 1918 was the establishment of the "Groupe de Chasse Jacquet" (Fighter group Jacquet) in February 1918. 

Under the command of Commandant Fernand Jacquet already an ace himself, the Belgian fighter squadrons were grouped together to offer fighter cover to Army units and observation aircraft, in the way the French already practised. Fighter patrols were also organised to interdict the presence of German observation aeroplane along the Belgian frontline. The Group flying Sopwith Camels, Spad VII’s, Hanriot HD1 and Sopwith Pup’s grouped some skilled fighter pilots as Coppens, Olieslagers, Demeulemeester and Thieffry. Unfortunately Thieffry was shot down and taken prisoner on April 23rd. Until then the use of fighter in the Belgian Air Corps was very empirical. It were fighter squadrons with individuals operating on their own or flying missions on behalf of the Army. Observation squadron sometime had their own fighters to their disposal to protect themselves. This is the case with some Sopwith Pup's detached within observation units. 


Pilots from the Jacquet fighter group. Willy Coppens, André "Mystère" De Meulemeester and Fernand Jacquet himself. 

However, the reaction of the Allies was very strong. On the Belgian front, the fighters of RAF conducted offensive patrols and succeed in keeping air superiority.

On the ground the situation stayed confuse until May when the German offensive was at last stopped. 

After the Allies won the battle on the Somme in August, the Belgians prepared to participate in the offensive in the
Flanders. On 28 September at 05:30 local time, Belgian, British and French troops assaulted the German trenches. A few minutes before the start of the offensive, Breguet XIV's and Spad XI's of the observation squadrons took off to support the infantry. 

French and Belgian observation squadrons co-operated to offer full advantage of the air support. Some aeroplanes were used to bomb and to machinegun the German positions. Ammunitions and supplies were also dropped from the air to advancing troops. On 14th October, Coppens was severely wounded while shooting down his 37 victim, another observation balloon. He successfully came back to his base but he lost one of his legs in the adventure. 

On 17 October, some pilots of the Groupe Jacquet flying of Spad VII, Spad XIII and Spad XI two-seat aircraft landed at Oostende, being the first Belgian army members to enter the town after the four years of German occupation. 

The French and British also operated aircraft to support the advancing troops. In November 1918, French Breguet XIV and Salmson's operated from advanced airstrips along the Leie river. British DH4's, Camels and SE5's conducted daily attacks in the sector Mons-Tournai-Enghien in the last days of the War. Remembrances of these daily missions are not so vivid as the actions of the fighter-bombers after D-Day 1944 but traces can be found in contemporary testimonies. Some US squadrons even operated in Flanders during November 1918.

When advancing in Belgium, Allies aviators found huge amount of aeronautical material left by retreating troops. Some WW1 aircraft displayed today in Museums all around the world were captured in Belgium. After the war the US Air Corps used Antwerpen until at least 1920 to load into ships German aircraft to the USA. Germans also left airfields still used today as Schaffen near Diest. It seems Kurt Tank, the future designer of the FW190, was working on this airfield. The town of Namur housed a Zeppelin shed build by the Germans.

In the minds of the Belgian Army high rank officers, the Belgian army air corps had been a very useful auxiliary force during all the conflict. Their approach of the use of air power was deeply influenced by the French strategy. The tactics use by the Belgian air corps was far way from the tactics used by the RAF. All during the comings years the situation would not change.

Commandant Nèlis, one of the first pilots of the Belgian Air Corps, commanded the Calais Beaumarais Depot throughout the war. Aircraft were maintained and repaired at this base. New aircraft were also delivered to
Calais. In the last months of the war, Nélis started thinking about the developments of aviation in Belgium after the War but this is another story.

World War 1 had other consequences over further aviation history in
Belgium
.

Marcel Lobelle was an infantryman with the elite grenadier regiment in August 1914. He was severely wounded during the battle of Tervaete in 1914. He then transferred to the rear front services before being discharged due to his wounds. He went to the UK, where he first worked with Tarrant and Martinsyde before to join Fairey Aircraft where he became Chief designer in the thirties.

Amongst the Belgian refugees in Great Britain, some were also employed with Sopwith and Fairey in Aircraft manufacturing. Other Belgian workers were employed in the French aircraft industry. Count de Monge was one of the founders of the "Helice lumière" company which equipped many French aircraft with propellers. 

Another refugee in Great Britain E.O. Tips also joined Fairey. He would return to Belgium during the thirties as a director of Avion Fairey at Gosselies and also became designer of the Tipsy aeroplanes. Some Tipsy Nippers designed by him are still flying today.

Jean Stampe was another pilot of the Belgian Air Corps during WW1. He was born in Antwerpen and flew dangerous observation missions during the war. King Albert 1 selected Stampe as one of his personal pilots after the war. After he had left the Army, Jean Stampe created the Stampe & Vertongen aircraft manufacturing company at Deurne with another pilot of WW1. The Stampe & Vertongen company designed the world famous SV4 biplane in the thirties. 
César Battaille also joined the Military Aviation at war outbreak. He served mainly with the Calais Beaumarais Depot designing bombs, bombsights and machine guns mountings.

During the whole conflict the Belgian AirCorps lost 65 airmen killed and many more wounded. Due to their proximity to the front, some towns and villages of Flanders suffered heavy civil casualties due to air attacks.



Compagnie d'Aviateurs  August 1914

I Squadron  HF Four JERO/Farman HF 16/ F 23bis Based at Ans (Liège) - CO Lt. Demanet
II Squadron  HF Four JERO/Farman HF 16/ F 23bis Based at Belgrade - CO Capt Soumoy
III Squadron HF Four JERO/Farman HF 16/ F 23bis Based at Leuven - CO Capt Deschamps
IV Squadron HF Four JERO/Farman HF 16/ F 23bis Based at Wilrijk - CO Cdt Wahis
 
Flying School Farman Ecole Based at Braschaat (Antwerpen)

Belgian Air Service July 1915

1st Squadron 1 Nieuport + 5 Maurice Farman  Based at Koksijde
2nd Squadron 4 Maurice Farman + 2 Nieuport Based at Koksijde
3rd Squadron 5 Voisin Based at Koksijde
4th Squadron 5 Maurice Farman + 1 Nieuport Based at Houtem
5th Squadron 5 Henri Farman Based at Houtem
French Belgian C74 Squadron Caudron GIII Based at Hondschotte
Depot & Support base At Calais (F.)
Seaplane (a single aeroplane offered by the RNAS) 1 Farman At Calais (F.)
Flying school Morane H, Bleriot XI, Farman  Etampes (F.)

Belgian Air Service February 1916

1st Squadron (Fighter) Nieuport Based at Koksijde
2nd Squadron Farman Based at Koksijde
3rd Squadron Farman Based at Koksijde
4th Squadron Farman Based at Koksijde
5th Squadron (Fighter) Nieuport, Farman Based at Koksijde
6th Squadron  BE2c Based at Koksijde
French Belgian C74 Squadron Caudron GIII, GIV Based at Hondschotte
Flying school Morane H, Bleriot XI, Farman  Etampes (F.)
Seaplane Squadron  FBA type H At Calais

Belgian Air Service March 1918

.
1st Group
1st Squadron Not operational Based at Koksijde
2nd Squadron (Observation) Breguet 14A2 Based at De Moeren
3rd Squadron (Observation) Breguet 14A2 Based at De Moeren
2nd Group
4th Squadron (Observation) Spad XI Based at Hondschoote
5th Squadron (Observation) Spad XI and Breguet 14A2 Based at Bray-Dunes (F.)
6th Squadron (Observation) Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter, Spad XI Based at Houtem
7th Squadron (Observation) Spad XI and Breguet 14A2 Based at Houtem
8th Squadron  Farman F.60 and F.61 Based at Quadypres (F.)
1st Fighter Group
9th Squadron Hanriot HD1 Based at De Moeren
10th Squadron Spad VII and XIII Based at De Moeren
11th Squadron Hanriot HD1 and Sopwith Camel Based at De Moeren
.
Flying School Several Juvisy (F.)
Seaplane Squadron  FBA type H Calais (F.)

These few notes just give you basic information about WW1 in the air over Belgium. You can find more in deep information in the following books.

The Belgian Air Service in the First World War, Walter Pieters  - Aeronaut Books - ISBN 978-1-935881-01-8 

Van Pionier tot Luchtridder, Roger Lampaert, Uitgeverij De Krijger ISBN 90-72547-31-4 190 Pages 
Above Flanders' Fields, Walter M. Pieters, Grub Street ISBN 1 898697 83 3 (on the Belgian fighter aces) 
Jours Envolés, Willy Coppens (also published in English) 
The Sky their Battlefield Trevor Henshaw - Grub Street 1995 ISBN 0-898697-30-2 (The definitive book if you want to know more about RNAS, RFC and RAF operations during WW1. The book contains information about British operations above Belgium). 
Filiation des Unités de la Force Aérienne, A Servais, Centre de documentation historique des Forces Armées - D/1558/1978/1

 

 

 

 

Last updated 24/01/15 11:31   Daniel Brackx