In 1914, gunners began pointing their weapons toward the sky
by MATTHEW MOSS
World War I saw the first widespread use of airplanes, first as observation platforms and later in both air- and ground-attack roles. The strategic threat that observation planes posed meant that even in the early weeks of the war on the Western Front, troops began opening fire on reconnaissance planes.
“Two machines that went out this morning on reconnaissance came back with several bullet holes in them,” Lt. W. R. Read, a pilot with the British Royal Flying Corps, noted on Aug. 22, 1914. “In one the observer was shot in the stomach.”
On that same day, the Royal Flying Corps lost its first aircraft to enemy infantry fire, when German infantry shot down an Avro 504.
While ground fire initially came from enemy rifles, field artillery was also pressed into service. In late August 1914, Read recalled taking fire from German artillery batteries. “Le Cateau was in flames. We were shelled by anti-aircraft guns so I kept at 4,500 feet.”
While artillery and massed rifle fire continued to pose a threat to aircraft, the use of machine guns in an anti-aircraft role quickly became the norm. The British and Commonwealth forces deployed both the Lewis Light Machine Gun and the Vickers Machine Gun. Of these, the Lewis Gun was lighter and much easier to aim and fire.
The British also deployed a number of Vickers QF one-pounder “pom-pom” guns in London as a defense against German Zeppelins in 1914 and 1915. However, they proved to be largely ineffective and were replaced.
The French deployed both the Hotchkiss Mle 1914 and the St. Etienne Mle 1907 in the anti-aircraft role — even deploying some on the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower when Paris was threatened by German aircraft.
The Central Powers also deployed their two primary machine guns in the air-defense role. The Germans used the Maxim MG08 while the Austrians deployed their Schwarzlose M.7. The M.7’s folding grips were especially useful in the anti-aircraft function.
Germany also deployed a number of 37-millimeter Maxim pom-pom guns which had been adopted by the navy before the turn of the century. Originally intended as a deck gun for defense against fast torpedo boats, they were heavy and unwieldy.
Similarly there are photographs of 37-millimeter Hotchkiss Revolving Cannons being used as anti-aircraft guns. Designed by Benjamin Hotchkiss, these were manually-operated guns with five barrels.
Toward the end of the war, Germany had begun developing a larger-caliber machine gun capable of firing the 13.2-millimeter TuF cartridge, which had been designed as an anti-tank and anti-aircraft round. The Germans also scaled up the MG08 to chamber the new Tank und Flieger ammunition. However, production began too late in the war for these guns to see service.
When the American Expeditionary Force arrived in France in 1917, it fell in on French equipment, including the Hotchkiss Mle 1914. The Americans deployed this weapon in both the infantry and anti-aircraft roles.
The deployment of machine guns in the new anti-aircraft mission meant that their crews often had to improvise ways of elevating the guns, as the standard tripods were not designed for the role.
As so often occurs in war, necessity was the mother of invention — and both sides found similar solutions to the problem. These ranged from simply digging a pit to mount the gun on a central mound to attaching a cart wheel to a post to allow free movement.
French tripods for the Mle 1907 could be elevated to steeper angles than their British and German counterparts, and photographs often show gunners lying between the tripod’s fully extended legs. It was actually extremely difficult to effectively traverse the gun from this position.
Other improvised solutions included placing a standard tripod on a tree stump or raising it with ammunition boxes. While specialized mounts were quickly developed, these were not always available and improvised positions continued to be common throughout the war.
Specialized training, anti-aircraft sights and mounts proliferated as the war progressed, and the efficiency of machine gun anti-aircraft batteries increased. Perhaps the most famous victim of anti-aircraft machine gun fire is Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.
The German fighter ace was killed by a single .303 round that caused a fatal chest wound. Evidence suggests it may have been fired by either Sgt. Cedric Popkin, an anti-aircraft gunner with the 24th Australian Machine Gun Company who was manning a Vickers Gun, or Gunner W.J. Evans of the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, manning a Lewis Gun.
While it remains unclear who actually fired the fatal shot, it almost certainly came from an anti-aircraft machine gun position.