Portrait of the Enemy

Photographs taken from the world’s first warplanes changed the course of battle.

The book that robbed the enemy of his secrets. A key to shapes shows a circle can be a haystack or a gun emplacement. (Eric Long)
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On the Eastern Front, in the epic Battle of Tannenberg, the Germans paid attention to their scouting pilots; the Russians ignored theirs. The result: Between August 17 and September 2, 1914, an entire Russian army was destroyed, its soldiers killed or captured, its commander dead by his own hand.

As the value of aerial intelligence soared, stopping it became ever more critical. A pilot’s life, already endangered by bad weather, unreliable engines, fragile airframes, and anti-aircraft fire, was about to become a lot more dangerous.

On Monday, October 5, 1914, a north wind blew across the vineyards near Rheims in northern France. For the soldiers of the German Second and Third Armies huddled in trenches, the cold was proof that the Six-Week War they’d been promised had been ill-named. The men of the nearby French Fifth Army weren’t any happier, but at least they could suffer with bottles of the excellent local champagne.

The drone of airplane engines turned thousands of faces up to the sky. A German Aviatik, a two-seat observation craft, was approaching at 3,500 feet to survey French lines. A second aircraft, a French Voisin, was above and behind it.

Lieutenant Fritz von Zangen, the Aviatik’s observer, commanded the recon flight from the front cockpit. He had an artillery map on his lap. His pilot, Sergeant Wilhelm Schlichting, sat huddled behind him. It seems likely that neither one saw the Voisin swooping down into their “six.”

The ungainly two-man Voisin resembled a baby stroller with wings. It was returning from a bombing mission when its pilot, Sergeant Joseph Frantz, spotted the Aviatik. He dove on it, overshot, then banked back in.

First the French soldiers, then the Germans climbed out of their trenches to stare up at a most unusual sight: the world’s first dogfight.

When the war began, opposing airmen could only shake their fists at each other. They soon armed themselves with pistols, rifles, shotguns, even grappling hooks and hand grenades. But Frantz’s front seat observer, Mechanic Corporal Quenault, had something new: a Hotchkiss machine gun, and as the Aviatik grew large in his sights, he fired.

The German pilot tried to dive away but Frantz stayed with him. The French soldiers on the ground cheered. Then the balky Hotchkiss jammed. The two airplanes were just 600 feet above the ground. The frustrated French gunner pulled out a rifle, aimed, and fired. The bullet struck Sergeant Schlichting. The Aviatik flipped and crashed in a ruin of timbers and canvas.

A new chapter in warfare had begun. For pilots in fast, single-seat Fokkers armed with fixed guns, fragile kites with sputtering motors were meat on the table. The vulnerable reconnaissance airplane had to adapt or die. A Farman F.20 of 1914 cruised at 68 mph and could climb, on a good day, to about 8,000 feet; by 1918, the Italian Ansaldo SVA 5 reconnaissance airplane could climb to 20,000 feet and outrun the swiftest single-seat fighters. It was the SR-71 Blackbird of its day.

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