Bloody April 1917: Massacre in the Skies



To what extent did Bloody April make the reputation of Manfred von Richthofen?

His Jasta (11) got the most victories during that month so it must have made some impact. He certainly had the idea that you should always attack while being protected from behind but he had other good pilots who such as Karl Emil Schäfer and his brother Lothar who had the nous to do the right jobs and shooting. It was certainly something that he took in his stride. When he joined the Jasta they had only had one victory in 4-5 months so his impact was almost immediate. He was much better than the previous leader of Jasta 11 who had just jogged along hoping for a quiet life.


What made the German fighters superior aircraft to their British counterparts?

The Germans started to go over to biplanes such as the Fokker biplane and the Albatros D.I and D.II. They were quite superior and had twin-spanned machine guns whereas most of the RFC planes just had a single Vickers or Lewis gun at the front.

The Germans also always fought over their own side of the lines. That was something they got into because there were comparatively few aeroplanes around and nobody wanted to lose any. Nor did they want to give the secret away of firing through the propeller but eventually one German got lost and came down intact on the Allied side and they discovered how the interrupter gear worked.

The British did have the Sopwith Pup, which was a very nice, docile thing for chugging around the sky. Providing it had a good competent pilot it could see off most of the Germans but it only had a single machine gun. Ultimately, the RFC struggled until better aircraft came along in the late spring of 1917.


Despite the high allied losses why were the British air support operations over Arras largely successful?

The RFC were always pushing forward. Trenchard had this policy of saying ,“Go and get them! Don’t fly on our side of the lines when the Germans are remaining on theirs.” They had to do artillery and photographic work and go over to the lines, which got them into trouble with the German fighters. Also, without radio there was a problem trying to contact the two-seaters who were doing work for the various army corps so they had to fly patrols and hope that they would be in area if the Germans turned up to engage.

On the other hand the Germans would be sitting on their airfields having a Schnapps and looking at front lines through their binoculars or telescopes. Frontline soldiers would ring up the airfield and say “They’re coming over” and they could just take off and engage the enemy. The Germans were always in full control of the air pushing the Allied aircraft back across the lines.


Although Hugh Trenchard later became known as the “Father of the Royal Air Force”, how much of his leadership of the RFC contributed or was responsible for Bloody April?

I think it’s unfair to try and say he bore any responsibility for the losses. He was fighting a war and he had an air force which had to deal with the opposition otherwise the guys on the ground were going to be bombarded and photographed to death. He had to get these fighting aircraft up to do the work.

It’s often said that the best form of defence is attack and he was always for attack. The RFC always went for the enemy and didn’t wait for them to come for them.



In your opinion what were the most important lessons that both sides learned from Bloody April and did it change their tactics?

That’s a difficult one. I think it was just a matter of carrying on and trying to do better. The Sopwith Camel and S.E.5 were coming in the summer and they were much better aeroplanes to combat the Germans. By contrast the Albatros didn’t really improve; they had the D.V and D.Va that was slightly better but it wasn’t until the Fokker Triplane arrived in late September 1917 that they had a better aeroplane and even that had its limitations.

In terms of tactics the RFC still had this old “Go over the other side and patrol” strategy and they lost a lot of men due to a lack of foresight and training. The British fighter pilots came out and filled the losses without any prior operational flying whatsoever. They were going in almost “sky blind” whereas the Germans had already been operational on two-seaters either as an observer or a pilot and had the nous to try and understand what was going on in the air.


What was the French role during Bloody April and how effective were they?

They were supposed to be supporting the French part of the line because General Nivelle was supposed to be coordinating the attack on the Arras front but he didn’t get his act together for some time. The British took the brunt of the Arras offensive but the French were still operating when Nivelle eventually got going.

They had good training and were better to a degree but they lost as much as anyone else. I wouldn’t say they were better or worse, they were just different. They mostly had Nieuport scouts on the fighting side so they were already equipped with a good enough aeroplane. However, it says something when most of the good Jastas were opposite the British front and the lesser Jastas were opposite the French front. It seemed to be a bit easier to be pitted against the French rather the British.