Air battle preceded Vimy Ridge

vimy ridge

Monument marks Vimy Ridge battle.
Photo: Submitted

Major Bill March

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a part of the larger Battle of Arras from April 9 to May 16, 1917. It took place from Easter Monday on April 9 until April 12 and was a decisive defeat of the German defenders.

The victory is viewed as a milestone in the development of Canada’s identity as a sovereign and independent nation.

The first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps had fought together, Vimy Ridge has become a potent symbol of Canadian nationalism, albeit at the cost of over 10,000 casualties (3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded).

The savagery of the fighting and the bravery of the combatants on the ground were matched by the war in the air. For the men of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) – and there were many Canadians among them – this was the start of “Bloody April”.

The air battle began long before the first soldier went over the top. The most potent weapon during the First World War was artillery and it came to rely heavily on aerial observation and photographs. Corps squadrons – air units tasked to provide direct reconnaissance support to a specific army or corps (the Canadian Corps was part of the British First Army) – were in the air whenever the weather permitted, photographing and re-photographing German positions.

At Vimy Ridge, the bulk of the work fell to the RFC’s 16 Squadron, flying B.E.2s, a two-seater biplane. By early March, aerial photographs had been taken of all of the German defensive positions and 180 of 212 hostile batteries had been located. During the actual battle, corps flew in support of the “shoots” meant to destroy or neutralize hostile batteries by providing near-real time corrections and photographing the results (what we now call battle damage assessment).

Scout or fighter aircraft flew offensive and defensive patrols. Offensive patrols were designed to destroy or discourage the enemy’s reconnaissance aircraft (and balloons), while defensive patrols were to protect friendly corps machines. The information being brought back was so important for the preparation of the upcoming offensive that each RFC reconnaissance aircraft was often assigned two scouts to act as close escorts. They flew in conjunction with defensive patrols of four to seven aircraft seeking to intercept the Germans before they could molest the corps aircraft.

The RFC was going through a period of massive expansion that led to a shortage of squadrons at the front. To help alleviate this deficiency, four RNAS squadrons, Numbers 1, 8 and 10, operating Sopwith triplanes, and No. 3, equipped with Sopwith Pups, were temporarily placed at the disposal of the RFC.

RFC aircraft were, for the most part, outclassed by German fighting machines. Where there was relative technical parity, squadrons equipped with either the Nieuport 17 or Sopwith Pup were capable of meeting the Germans on somewhat equal terms. The outcome of a fight often rested with the skill of the aircrew and survival was dictated by where the fight took place and the prevailing wind.

The continued growth, combined with losses at the front, meant many aircrew operating in the skies above the Canadian Corps had minimal training and were often unfamiliar with the aircraft they were flying.

The expansion of the RFC, and to a lesser extent the RNAS, increased the demand for personnel. Although there were a number of Canadians serving in both flying services, most had come via direct recruitment in North America or through voluntary secondment from the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In an effort to tap into a perceived pool of eager young Canadians, the RFC established a large training organization in Canada in January 1917. In the months following the Battle of Arras, Through the RFC Canada, thousands of Canadians would take to the skies over Europe via the RFCA Canada.

Assaulting bodies of infantry, in addition to their already substantial burden of equipment, carried extra flares and signal panels with which to highlight their positions to friendly aircraft above.

Except for brief periods, lousy weather continued for almost the entire period of the assault on Vimy Ridge. While this made it difficult for 16 Squadron to carry out counter-battery work, it made the need for contact patrols even more important. Flying low over weather-obscured bodies of
troops was always dangerous; in the height of battle soldiers on the ground often assumed that low-flying aircraft were hostile and therefore to be
shot at.

And while the air war may have been relatively quiet at Vimy Ridge, it continued unabated over the Arras battlefield. During this period, Lieutenant Billy Bishop became an Ace while flying a Nieuport 17 with 60 Squadron, RFC (he claimed his fifth victory on April 8, 1917). By the end of the month he would claim total of 17 enemy aircraft destroyed or forced down.

Other Canadian airmen were equally effective, including Lloyd Samuel Breadner of Carleton Place, Ontario, who would become Chief of the Air Staff of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Joseph Fall of Cobble Hill, British Columbia, with No. 3 (Naval) Squadron of the RNAS. Both scored triple victories during an engagement on April 11, 1918.

From a Canadian air power perspective, the battle for Vimy Ridge could be characterized as the first Canadian “joint” engagement. Although primarily a land battle, the contributions of the RFC and RNAS were crucial.