February 1917

The retreat to the Hindenburg line and the “silent dictatorship” of the German Chief of the Army Staff.

By Alessandro Salvador

“It does not seem to me to be sufficiently recognized everywhere among the officials that the existence or non-existence of our people and Empire is at stake.”

(Paul von Hindenburg)

On 3 February 1917, the German army began a colossal withdrawal operation on the Western Front. Known as “Operation Alberich”, the strategic retreat undertaken by the Chief of the Army Staff, Paul von Hindenburg, was planned to be over in 35 days and its objective was to fall back on a defence-in-depth line known as the Siegfriedstellung (Siegfried Position), or Hindenburg line.

This consisted of a comprehensive series of fortifications, preparations for which had started as early as August 1916 along the Noyon salient in the northwest of France. The decision to withdraw was reached after the difficult situation created following the disastrous German offensive at Verdun and the subsequent defeat that was unfolding on the Somme. On top of all this came the ruinous consequences of the Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front and the entry of Romania into the war.

The crisis situation that ensued had cost the Chief of the Army Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, his post. Paul von Hindenburg aided by Erich Ludendorff, succeeded Falkenhayn in the summer of 1916.

By stabilising their position along the new line, they aimed to reduce the length of the German front by at least 50 kilometres, which would have enabled substantial savings to be made in terms of men and materials. Moreover, during the withdrawal the Germans destroyed infrastructure and civilian buildings, leaving “scorched earth” behind them. The whole defensive concept on which the Hindenburg line was based aimed to optimise resources and create a defence that was considered impenetrable. Centred upon a system of five main fortifications, the line also envisaged a series of outposts intended to interfere with and weaken any possible enemy offensive.

In a more general context, the withdrawal was an integral part of a complete, comprehensive overhaul of the German strategies and tactics employed by the new Chief of the Army Staff. His authority began to extend well beyond military issues. The so-called “Hindenburg Programme” in fact envisaged large-scale use of resources and manpower in order to double German industrial output within a short time and to enable the country to keep pace with the enemy.  

The Chief of the Army Staff in that period divested the civilian authorities and the Emperor himself of their powers, creating a situation that was later to be defined as the “silent dictatorship”. The personality cult that was being developed around the figure of Hindenburg also contributed to creating this situation. In the German states wooden statues of Hindenburg were erected in his honour and he became a legendary figure. Starting with the great victories he achieved early on in the war at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, Hindenburg was seen as an embodiment of the typical traits of the German hero: strength, rectitude and honour. His legend appealed to Germans of all classes, confessions and generations. It was however particularly widespread and propagated amongst the members of the landowning nobility in Prussia, the so-called Junkers.

Whilst formally refuting the definition of military dictatorship, the interference of Hindenburg and his staff in the political and economic life of Germany knew no limits, nor did their profound control over propaganda and communications.

The main limitation of the Hindenburg Programme turned out to be the management of the workforce. Both the construction of the Hindenburg line, and his industrial programme in fact required the use of millions of men who had to be taken away from the front. This problem was partially solved through the systematic use of Russian prisoners and the relocation of workers arriving from the countryside and food production sector. Which, on the other hand, was one of the reasons for which Germany, towards the end of the war, found itself in a situation of famine and insufficient food supplies

The parable of Hindenburg and his Army Staff came to an end in the autumn of 1918. In September, Ludendorff suggested seeking a compromise with the Entente to reach an armistice, but changed his mind shortly afterwards and resigned. Subsequently it was to be Hindenburg who managed the process of handing over power to the civilian authorities, as well as appointing Prince Max of Baden as Chancellor and putting pressure on the Kaiser to abdicate. 

Guerra aerea sull'Isonzo

Di Nicole-Melanie Goll

 

Con la dichiarazione di guerra del Regno d'Italia del 23 maggio 1915, la monarchia austro-ungarica si trovò a combattere contemporaneamente su tre fronti. Specie sul fronte sud-occidentale, la guerra aerea fu condotta in modo del tutto diverso rispetto a quanto finora noto dal fronte orientale e sud-orientale nel 1914. La regione attorno all'Isonzo/Soča si trasformò sempre più nel punto focale di una guerra aerea che vide contrapposti i piloti della k.u.k. Luftfahrtruppe (LFT, ovvero l'Aviazione Imperiale e Regia) a quelli del Corpo Aeronautico Militare, rinforzato da aviatori francesi e inglesi. La situazione di stallo a terra (battaglie dell'Isonzo) fece sì che sopra il fronte si accese una battaglia per la supremazia aerea, che per la sua intensità comportò non solo una brusca accelerazione degli sviluppi tecnici e tecnologici, ma anche dimostrò per la prima volta l'importanza militare che avrebbero avuto le forze aeree nei conflitti futuri.

In Austria-Ungheria, prima del 1914, si era attribuita poca importanza alle forze aeree, con un conseguente scarso investimento di mezzi finanziari nella costituzione delle stesse. Fu nell'estate 1914, al più tardi però nel corso del conflitto contro l'Italia, che tale valutazione risultò errata, creando uno svantaggio considerevole sul "fronte aereo": nel 1914 la LFT, mal preparata, disponeva di 114 piloti militari – all'inizio l'aviazione era riservata agli ufficiali – e di molti tipi diversi di aeroplani. Sul fronte isontino la conformazione geografica del territorio (Alpi Giulie, Carso e Mar Adriatico) e le condizioni meteorologiche (foehn, bora, scirocco) posero enormi difficoltà alla k.u.k. LFT, ammassatasi frettolosamente dal fronte orientale e sud-orientale. Nelle strette vallate delle Alpi e del Carso si dovettero allestire rapidamente campi di volo e i piloti furono costretti ad acquisire familiarità con le particolarità meteorologiche del luogo. Solamente i piloti dell'Aviazione di Marina k.u.k., come ad esempio Goffredo de Banfield, erano di stanza già prima del 1914 nella regione, per esempio a Cattaro, Pola, successivamente a Trieste, e già un giorno prima della dichiarazione di guerra dell'Italia poterono compiere attacchi a strutture militari e a importanti infrastrutture a Bari, Ancona e Venezia. All'inizio, le forze aeree k.u.k. erano presenti sul fronte isontino solo con quattro squadriglie (Fliegerkompanie o Flik) e 16 aeroplani. Con la dislocazione della maggior parte della LFT in questo teatro di guerra decisivo diviene visibile un netto spostamento del baricentro.

I compiti inizialmente assegnati e agli aviatori, meramente ridotti a una funzione di supporto (ricognizione, sostegno all'artiglieria) a favore delle truppe di terra dell'esercito k.u.k., furono ampliati come reazione ai requisiti della moderna guerra di massa. Attacchi aerei a obiettivi militari, vie di trasporto principali e impianti industriali come centrali elettriche, porti, ponti e strade miravano a contrastare e interrompere la catena italiana dei rifornimenti. Lo spazio aereo, in cui, contrariamente a quanto accadeva per la guerra di posizione combattuta a terra, esisteva ancora un considerevole margine di manovra, acquisì sempre più un ruolo decisivo. Sopra il fronte isontino infiammò una battaglia per la supremazia aerea, che inizialmente gli aviatori k.u.k. poterono ancora decidere a loro favore. Con il potenziamento delle forze aeree italiane, il dislocamento dei velivoli dell'aviazione di marina francese nel 1915, successivamente anche delle squadriglie di volo britanniche del Royal Flying Corps, in Italia e l'impiego dei bombardieri Caproni, l'Intesa riuscì a rafforzare il fronte aereo anche in questa regione. La LFT si trovò così confrontata con un avversario più forte, i cui aeroplani erano più veloci, più moderni e presto anche numericamente superiori. Già durante la terza battaglia dell'Isonzo svoltasi dal 18 ottobre al 4 novembre 1915 gli italiani ebbero dalla loro una superiorità aerea pari a 3:1. Nonostante l'incremento della produzione nell'entroterra, la LFT si trovò a combattere con considerevoli carenze di personale e materiale; circostanza, questa, destinata a rimanere invariata fino alla fine della guerra.

Il cambiato rapporto delle forze recò in misura crescente disturbo all'aviatori austro-ungarici durante le operazioni di ricognizione, bombardamento e pattugliamento. Ne derivò la necessità di proteggere i propri aerei. I piloti di caccia, equipaggiati con macchine più veloci e maneggevoli e con una mitragliatrice puntata in avanti, assunsero quest'incarico di combattere velivoli avversari. In Austria-Ungheria, le prime operazioni furono compiute già nel 1916, anche se uno sviluppo adeguato e una costruzione mirata ebbero luogo non prima della primavera del 1917 sotto forma di reparti di caccia specializzati, equipaggiati con macchine Albatros D II, III e Aviatik Berg D I. Il pilota di campo capitano Godwin von Brumowski costituì la Flik 1 sul fronte sud-occidentale e ne assunse il comando. Questo sviluppo fu sostenuto soprattutto dalla propaganda bellica per strumentalizzare sempre più la figura del pilota di caccia come combattente individuale eroico che duella in una battaglia aerea asseritamente equa. Il pilota di caccia era destinato a caratterizzare sempre più l'immagine della guerra aerea, benché vi fossero ulteriori differenziazioni e, con esse, unità specializzate come per esempio squadriglie relative al corpo d'armata (Korpsfliegerkompanie), squadriglie per l'artiglieria (Divisionsfliegerkompanie), squadriglie da ricognizione strategica (Fernaufklärungskompanie), squadriglie da offesa (Großflugzeugskompanie), squadriglie per la fanteria (Schlachtfliegerkompanie) e squadriglie fotografiche (Photoaufklärungskompanien), che assunsero diversi compiti. La mancanza di risorse in Austria-Ungheria aggravò notevolmente quest'evoluzione. Negli ultimi due anni della guerra la monarchia austro-ungarica disponeva in media di 500-600 piloti. La durata di sopravvivenza di un aviatore era di circa quattro mesi. Eppure, il 1917 segnò una svolta: in quell'anno si ebbe non solo il momento culminante della guerra aerea sul fronte isontino ma anche il passaggio della LFT da mera arma accessoria ad arma a sé stante.

La decima e l'undicesima battaglia dell'Isonzo furono contrassegnate da un'immensa attività e da un enorme aumento degli interventi aerei e delle battaglie aeree. Nella sola decima battaglia, i 64 aerei della LFT effettuarono 711 incursioni aeree in territorio nemico con 210 battaglie aeree e conseguirono 22 vittorie. Nonostante l'impiego di tutte le forze aeree presenti nulla si poté contro la superiorità aerea italiana. Mediante il ricorso alle nuove, rapide e maneggevoli macchine Nieuport e Spad, gli avversari poterono creare sbarramenti aerei che resero impossibili la penetrazione inosservata nello spazio aereo italiano e l'attività di ricognizione.

Quando il 24 ottobre ebbe inizio la controffensiva austro-ungarica nella zona di Plezzo-Tolmino, i circa 150 aerei della LFT decollati dai campi di aviazione della Valle del Vipacco, di Prosecco, Sesana e Divaca assolvettero i loro compiti solo grazie al supporto delle forze aeree tedesche, dislocate sul fronte isontino. Essi spostarono il rapporto delle forze nel breve periodo e ottennero la supremazia aerea sullo spazio di battaglia. Nel corso dell'offensiva fu possibile far arretrare sempre di più le forze terrestri e aeree italiane. Ben tre giorni dopo l'inizio dell'offensiva l'esercitò italiano battè in ritirata. Il 31 ottobre le truppe k.u.k. erano già avanzate fino al Tagliamento. La situazione meteorologica avversa, la mancanza di mezzi di trasporto, la carenza di carburante e ricambi nonché le difficoltà di rifornimento frenarono considerevolmente l'avanzata dell'aviazione k.u.k. Solo mobilitando tutte le forze presenti fu ancora possibile realizzare un intervento aereo. Infine, in data 2 dicembre 1917, l'offensiva che aveva fatto guadagnare all'esercito k.u.k. un vantaggio spaziale compreso tra i 100 e i 150 km, giunse a una battuta di arresto. Con l'offensiva, il baricentro delle attività dell'aviazione k.u.k. si era spostato a Occidente. Fu qui nell'ambito dell'offensiva del Piave, sopra Montello, che ebbe luogo una delle maggiori battaglie aeree della Prima Guerra Mondiale.

Tra il 1915 e il 1918 sul fronte isontino andò sviluppandosi una forma particolare di conduzione della guerra aerea che comportò una variegata differenziazione degli ambiti di competenza all'interno della LFT. La battaglia condotta con accanimento per la supremazia aerea e i bombardamenti effettuati per la prima volta portarono a uno sconfinamento iniziale della guerra, anticipando la delineazione di conflitti futuri.

 

Bibliografia:

Morrow Jr., John H.: The Great War in the Air. Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921, Washington/London 1993

Schmidt, Wolfgang: Luftkrieg, in: Hirschfeld, Gerhard et al. (Hrsg.): Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg, Paderborn 2003, 687-689

Chant, Christopher: Osprey Aircraft of the Aces – Austro-Hungarian Aces of World War 1. Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2002

Desoye, Reinhard Karl: Die k.u.k. Luftfahrtruppen – Die Entstehung, der Aufbau und die Organisation der österreichisch-ungarischen Heeresluftwaffe. 2 Bde, Diplom-Arbeit, Vienna 1994.

Goll, Nicole-Melanie: „…Nobel und ritterlich im Kampf, war er gleich einer Gestalt aus der Zeit des Minnesanges und der Turniere …“. Zur Konstruktion des Kriegshelden in der k.u.k. Monarchie am Beispiel von Godwin von Brumowski, Gottfried von Banfield und Egon Lerch, Graz phil.Diss 2014.

RavbarMatjaž: Avstro-Ogrsko letalstvo na soški fronti 1915–1917. Cesarska in kraljeva letališka infrastruktura v zaledju soške fronte. Univerza, Ljubljana 2011.

Peter Ernst: Die k.u.k. Luftschiffer- und Fliegertruppe Österreich-Ungarns 1794–1919. Motorbuch Verlag, 1995

 

Air warfare over the Isonzo River

By Nicole-Melanie Goll

 

When the Kingdom of Italy declared war on 23 May 1915, the Habsburg monarchy found itself fighting simultaneously on three fronts. On the south-western front in particular a completely different form of air warfare emerged to what they had previously been familiar with on the eastern and south-eastern fronts in 1914. The area around the Isonzo/Soča river increasingly became the focal point of an aerial war, in which the pilots of the Austro-Hungarian aviation troops (LFT) and the Corpo Aeronautico Militare, reinforced with French and British pilots, confronted each other. The impasse on the ground (the Battles of the Isonzo) led to a battle for superiority in the air over the front which, due to its intensity, led not only to a rapid acceleration of technical/technological developments, but also demonstrated for the first time the military significance that the use of air force would have in future conflicts.

Austria-Hungary before 1914 had attached little importance to air forces and as a result had invested very few financial means in their development. This evaluation proved to be a mistake in the summer of 1914, and later on in the war against Italy, and created a major disadvantage on the “air front”: the inadequately prepared LFT in 1914 had over 114 military pilots – initially flying was reserved for officers – and a vast array of different aeroplanes.  The geographical features of the Isonzo front (the Julia Alps, Karst region, Adriatic Sea) and the weather conditions (the Föhn, Bora and Scirocco prevailing winds) represented considerable difficulties for the first, hastily assembled, Austro-Hungarian aviation troops arriving from the eastern and south-eastern front. Airfields had to be rapidly created in the narrow valleys of the Alps and the Karst region and the pilots had to gain confidence with the peculiarities of the weather. Only Austro-Hungarian naval aircraft pilots such as Gottfried von Banfield, who had already been stationed in the region before 1914 in Kotor/Cattaro, Pula/Pola and later in Triest/Trieste, were able, the day after Italy declared war, to carry out attacks on military installations and major infrastructure in Bari, Ancona and Venice. The Austro-Hungarian air forces initially deployed only four Fliegerkompanies (Fliks) and 16 aeroplanes on the Isonzo front. When a major part of the LFT was transferred to this decisive theatre of war, a clear shift in emphasis became apparent.

Initially still restricted to merely providing support (reconnaissance, artillery support) for the Austro-Hungarian army’s ground troops, the duties of pilots were continuously extended in response to the requirements of modern large-scale war. Air attacks on military targets, essential transport routes and industrial installations such as power stations, harbours, bridges and roads were carried out to interfere with and interrupt Italian supplies. Air space, where there was still considerable freedom of movement, as opposed to the war of position on the ground, began to play an increasingly decisive role. A battle for superiority waged in the air above the Isonzo front, where the Austro-Hungarian pilots in the beginning still managed to emerge as victors. With the improvement of the Italian air forces and the transfer of French naval aircraft pilots in 1915, and later British squadrons of Royal Flying Corps to Italy, and the deployment of the Caproni-Bombers, the Entente succeeded in reinforcing the air front in this region too. The LFT were therefore confronted with a superior enemy, whose aircraft were faster, more modern and also soon superior in number. Already during the third Battle of the Isonzo from 18 October until 4 November 1915, the Italians had a flying superiority of 3:1 in their favour. Despite an increase in production in the hinterland, the Austro-Hungarian pilots had to contend with serious shortages of personnel and material – a situation that was not to change until the end of the war.

As a result of the shift in forces, the Austro-Hungarian aircraft pilots were increasingly hindered during their reconnaissance, bombardment and patrol flights. They also needed to protect their own aircraft. Fighter pilots equipped with faster, more manoeuvrable machines and a forwards firing machine gun were supposed to take over this job and combat enemy flying objects. In Austria-Hungary as early as 1916 the first steps were taken, but suitable developments were however not accomplished before spring 1917 when specialised fighter pilot units were formed, which were equipped with Albatros D II, III and Aviatik Berg D I planes. Field pilot Captain Godwin von Brumowski was to form the first Jagdfliegerkompanie (fighter squadron) on the south-western front and assume command over it. War propaganda especially took advantage of this development and exploited “the” fighter pilot increasingly as a heroic solo fighter, who fought a duel in a presumably fair battle in the air. The fighter pilot was to increasingly shape the image of aerial warfare, although there were further differentiations with the formation of specialised units such as the short range reconnaissance squadron for a corps (Korpsfliegerkompanie), short range reconnaissance squadron for an army division (Divisionsfliegerkompanie), long-range reconnaissance units (Fernaufklärungskompanie), heavy bomber squadrons (Großflugzeugskompanie), ground support squadrons (Schlachtfliegerkompanie) and photographic reconnaissance squadron (Photoaufklärungskompanien), which all performed different tasks. The lack of resources in Austria-Hungary undermined this development substantially. In the last two years of the war, the Habsburg monarchy had an average of over 500 to 600 pilots at their disposal. The length of time a pilot survived was approximately four months. Nevertheless the year 1917 marked a turning point: not only did the aerial battle over the Isonzo front reach a climax, the LFT also transitioned from a pure auxiliary arm to a branch of the service in its own right.

The Tenth and Eleventh Battles of the Isonzo saw a huge amount of activity and an enormous increase in the number of sorties and air attacks. In the Tenth Battle alone the 64 LFT aircraft completed 711 combat missions with 210 aerial combats and marked up 22 downings. Despite the commitment of all available air forces, nothing could be done to curb the Italian superiority in the air. The enemy was able to make use of the new, fast and manoeuvrable Nieuport and SPAD aircraft for  an air barrage, which made it impossible to penetrate Italian air space and carry out reconnaissance unnoticed.

When the Austro-Hungarian counteroffensive began in the Flitsch-Tolmein region on 24 October, the LFT’s approximately 150 aircraft, which took off from the Wippachtal, Prosecco, Sesana and Divaca airfields, had to require the support of the German air forces that had been transferred to the Isonzo front for their sorties. These shifted the balance of power in the short term and gained control of the air above the combat zone. In the course of the offensive, they were able to push the Italian ground and air forces further and further back. Just three days after the start of the offensive, the Italian army found itself in retreat. On 31 October the Austro-Hungarian troops had already advanced as far as the Tagliamento river. The poor weather conditions, lack of transportation, the shortage of engine fuel and spare parts as well as difficulties in getting supplies slowed down the advance of the Austro-Hungarian aircraft pilots considerably. Only by stretching all available forces to the limit was it possible to deploy the pilots at all. The offensive, which had brought the Austro-Hungarian army a territorial gain of between 100 and 150 km, finally ground to a halt on 2 December 1917. The main area of the activity of the Austro-Hungarian pilots had moved westwards, where one of the largest air battles of the First World War was taking place over Montello as part of the Piave offensive.

Between 1915 and 1918 a special form of aerial warfare developed over the Isonzo front, which led to a broad differentiation of assignments within the LFT. The bitterly waged war for air supremacy and the bombings carried out for the first time led to the war extending beyond its boundaries and provided a foretaste of how future conflicts would be shaped.

 

Bibliography:

Morrow Jr., John H.: The Great War in the Air. Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921, Washington/London 1993

Schmidt, Wolfgang: Luftkrieg, in: Hirschfeld, Gerhard et al. (Hrsg.): Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg, Paderborn 2003, 687-689

Chant, Christopher: Osprey Aircraft of the Aces – Austro-Hungarian Aces of World War 1. Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2002

Desoye, Reinhard Karl: Die k.u.k. Luftfahrtruppen – Die Entstehung, der Aufbau und die Organisation der österreichisch-ungarischen Heeresluftwaffe. 2 Bde, Diplom-Arbeit, Vienna 1994.

Goll, Nicole-Melanie: „…Nobel und ritterlich im Kampf, war er gleich einer Gestalt aus der Zeit des Minnesanges und der Turniere …“. Zur Konstruktion des Kriegshelden in der k.u.k. Monarchie am Beispiel von Godwin von Brumowski, Gottfried von Banfield und Egon Lerch, Graz phil.Diss 2014.

RavbarMatjaž: Avstro-Ogrsko letalstvo na soški fronti 1915–1917. Cesarska in kraljeva letališka infrastruktura v zaledju soške fronte. Univerza, Ljubljana 2011.

Peter Ernst: Die k.u.k. Luftschiffer- und Fliegertruppe Österreich-Ungarns 1794–1919. Motorbuch Verlag, 1995

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