In late 1917 and early 1918, the Luftfahrtruppen (the Austro-Hungarian Air Force, or LFT) issued secret guidelines that indicated specifications for it's future aircraft procurement plans.

Of greatest interest may be the guidelines issued for the two fighter classes the LFT was hoping to deploy in numbers during 1919 had the war continued another year (from the book Austro-Hungarian Army Aircraft of World War One):

Type 2: Fighter for attack or escorting two-seaters; high combat potential, maneuverable, rapid climb, and fast

Fixed installations: Fuel tank for 2 hours full throttle, 2 synchronized machine guns preferably mounted at eye level, equipped to take camera and parachute. Engine: 200 hp Daimler.

Type 3: Interceptor fighter To defend against attacking enemy squadrons, therefore the highest rate of climb at expense of duration, elimination of all possible comfort for maximum weight reduction, generally remains on this side of the Front.

Fixed installations: Fuel tank for 2 hours full throttle, 2 synchronized machine guns preferably mounted at eye level, equipped to take parachute. Engine: 150 hp rotary.

Of significance here, could be the light the Austro-Hungarian guidelines may shed on Germany's fighter requirments set forth in the last two years of the Great War!

As we all know, the historical discussion will continue amongst avaition fans as to which plane goes the title of Best Fighter of WWI! However, it's interesting that this question is rarely presented as to which fighter best satisfied the needs of it's respectful Air Force, as set-forth under the guidelines and anticipated means of deployment required by each of the warring nation's Air Forces. Afterall, didn't different strategic doctrines require different fighter designs to meet each Air Force's specific battle needs?

Perhaps the most important element in the evolution of aircraft development during WWI was the anticipated requirements envisioned by each nation's air arm. Certainly, tactical considerations were considered within the classification set-forth (as illustrated by the Austro-Hungarian specs above), but there was most certainly a strategic consideration too that was part of the aircraft procurement equation.

Consider the use of the German Siemens-Schuckert D.III & IV series late in WWI, did the employment of this series of aircraft not closely follow the requirements dictated under the LFT's Type 3 specification listed above? Now how about the Fokker Dr.I, was it too primarily a point-defense fighter, that generally
remains on this side of the Front

To further highlight the association between Austro-Hungary's fighter procurement plans with those of Germany, it should be noted that the LFT had already put into motion efforts to license-build the Fokker D.VII before the war ended in November 1918. Besides domestic Fokker D.VIIs. Austro-Hungary also planned to purchase German-built Fokker D.VIIs and Fokker D.VIII rotary-powered fighters to fulfill the the requirements for both the 1919 fighter classes listed above.

Now let's move the discussion's time-line back to 1917, and consider Germany's strategic campaign planning.

The United States declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, proved to have a profound affect on the strategic planning put forth by the German general staff for the prosecution of the war effort in the remaining months of the conflict. An immediate result of the influx of American manpower and materiel onto French soil in 1917, was a realization by Germany's war planners that victory had to be secured as soon as possible before the United States could effectively tip the balance of power irrevocably in favor of the Allies.

Throughout late 1917 and early 1918, Germany's plans to expand it's ground offensive strength (with newly released reinforcements from the secured Eastern Front), and in the air by the enlargement of it's aerial squadrons was in full swing. Germany would now go on the offensive for one last decisive effort, and the planning for Kaiserschlacht commenced with great purpose.

The effect this planning had on the subsequent reorganization of the Luftstreitkrafte (the German Air Force), and it's deployment in the air would be far-reaching.

The day of the Jagdgeschwader had arrived!

The doctrine behind the formation of this permanent grouping of Jagdstaffeln was primarily offensive in nature. It can be argued that the German Fighter squadrons had fought mostly a defensive war in the air thus far, choosing to selectively concentrate against Allied incursions into it's airspace rather than to push the air war across the enemy's lines. In fact this defensive fighter doctrine may have been codified as far back as the formation of the first German hunting units of Eindeckers mounting Fokker's secret firing gear, when German pilots were forbidden to cross the lines lest the synchronizing technology be captured by the opposition. Now in late 1917, the German High Command recognized the necessity to go over to the offensive to a greater degree on the ground as well as in the air!

The tip of the spear for this air fighting was to be formed by the establishment of permanent Jagdgeschwader formations, which would clear the airspace above the expected advancing columns of field grey, and provide air support for the offensive's drive forward.

Much planning occurred in preparation for what would become Operation Michael, Germany's opening operation in a series of five offensives planned to start in early 1918. Feverish work and restructuring had been instituted in the Luftstreitkrafte too, in order for it to be ready to accomplish it's wider role above the projected offensive.

The question is how well equipped were the German Jastas prepared for performing this greater mission?

Without a doubt, much of the Luftstreitkrafte's elite were concentrated in the subsequent Jagdgeschwadern, but a real questions arises whether the fighter inventory on hand was up to the standards of the pilots themselves.

As new Allied scouts came into service in mid and late 1917 (specifically the Bristol Fighter, S.E. 5, Sopwith Triplane, Sopwith Camel, and SPAD XIII) the German fighters found it increasingly more difficult to carry out their overall role.......that of protecting friendly airspace from enemy use. The inadequacy of the newer Albatros D.V & D.Va models, along with the poor performance exhibited by the Pfalz D.III series, did nothing to help redress the growing imbalance of enemy fighter superiority as the year 1918 loomed on the horizon. It would fall to Rtm. Manfred von Richthofen, Anthony Fokker, and the German Inspectorate of Flying troops (Idflieg) to convert the envy of Britain's Triplane design into concrete action, and produced Germany's most promising yet vexing fighter of the era, the agile and rapid-climbing Fokker Dr.I.

Much has been written about the legendary capabilities of the Fokker Dr.I, and it must be said that it was supremely suited for the role it had been designed defend the skies above German held territory! However new operational requirements that the Luftstreitkrafte would soon place upon this three-wing fighter would prove it's inadequacy as a far-ranging intruder capable of taking the airwar into hostile skies.

In fact, much to the credit of forward thinking leaders in the German Air Force (Richthofen included), a more systematic approach was being formulated to coordinate development and the selection of suitable fighter designs for the future, with this process culminating in the three Fighter Competitions held at Aldershof throughout 1918 and the selection of the Fokker D.VII as Germany's ultimately versatile fighter type of the conflict's last year.

Although Germany never lost the war in the air, it certainly did not win the airwar either, and stalemate in the air and on the land coupled to the naval blockade meant that Germany would fight an ever-costly war of attrition that was economically unsustainable. During the all-important first weeks of Operation Michael the Luftstreitkrafte went into battle with fighters unsuited for projecting sustained air power into enemy airspace. Unlike Allied scouts which had been purpose-built as intruders, neither the German Albatros, Pfalz, or Fokker triplane possessed the speed, range, or flight duration to engage in effective combat on the enemy side of the Front. Whether final victory was lost upon the failure of Operation Michael remains ponderable, but there is no doubt that the maintenance of Allied strength aided largely by American battlefield reinforcement in 1918 eventually would tip the scales against Germany winning the Great War.

Of course German airmen had fought vallantly throughout the conflict and with much skill, but perhaps it was German air doctrine and the attendant design requirements that had left the Luftstreitkrafte ill-prepared to successfully fulfill it's new stategic role during the German 1918 operations.

Like it's ally Austro-Hungary, German fighter design was predicated by the aero-engines available for use, primarily water-cooled inline sixes or lower weight but less reliable rotary engines. Not until 1918, with the introduction of the Fokker D.VII did Germany field a fighter truly capable for the offensive role, but by this time American men, materiel, and morale was beginning to make it's contribution to the Allied war effort.

The Luftstreitkrafte had ably fought a mostly defensive war in the air, but when it was called upon to go over to the offensive it's fighter planes were ill-suited to the task.

Most likely the changes to Germany's air doctrine and future fighter designs as put into affect during the last half of 1918 resulted in a policy of too little too late...........perhaps the moment for the Luftstreitkrafte decisive contribution to strategic victory had passed months before, lost on the hopes for success of a new three-winged fighter!

In regards to what these impressions of the airwar may have on the design criteria for simulating aerial combat, it will be interesting to see how Germany's fighters will perform in the hypothetical, when called upon to go over to the offensive in Knights Over Europe!

Will observing the historical availability time line for such aircraft as the Albatros series, the Pfalz D.III-IIIa, or the Fokker Dr.I preclude Germany from effectively exercising an offensive capability in the transition period of 1917-18?

Perhaps it's all a matter of timing!

FlyXwire Dec. 2003