Black September 1918: WWI’s Darkest Month in the Air

  • Published

Black September 1918: WWI’s Darkest Month in the Air by Norman Franks, Russell Guest, and Frank W. Bailey. Grub Street Publishing, 2018, 192 pp. 

World War I air combat has always had an enthusiastic following. Airpower historians covet books by and about noted aces and illustrious units, and this work by Norman Franks, Russell Guest, and Frank W. Bailey is a fine addition to the study of Great War airpower. The self-proclaimed follow–up to the authors’ Bloody April 1917: An Exciting Detailed Analysis of One of the Deadliest Months in WWI covers the air war though the entire month of September 1918, the bloodiest month in the air during the entire war. The authors present brief accounts of air combat that resulted in aircraft shot or forced down or claims to that effect. 

The authors cover the entire month of September, day-by-day. Each daily entry contains a review of operations in each sector. Each entry also contains tables of aircraft and balloon losses and aircrew casualties broken down by country. The tables of losses give the aircraft type, tail number, squadron, aircrew names, and crew status (killed, wounded, prisoner-of-war, or safe). Other tables show shoot-down claims for each country. This opening paragraph for Thursday, 5 September, will give the reader an idea of the contents of a typical entry: 

The weather this day was described as warm and hazy. Activity built up slowly but by late evening the RAF [Royal Air Force] had made 67 claims. 4 AFC started the ball rolling with another of their early morning marauding raids, during which Lieutenant A. H. Lockley burnt the Perenchies balloon at 0625. A half hour later, east of Ploegsteert Woods, Lieutenant C. L. Childs of 70 squadron flamed a Fokker DVII. On the German side, Leutnant Fritz Rumey of Jasta 5 shot down the SE5a of Second Lieutenant W. A. F. Cowgill of 64 squadron, north of Bouchain (p. 49). 

The entries vary from day-to-day, of course, depending upon the weather and the overall war situation. For example, the entries for 9–11 September are brief because of bad weather, but the entry for 12 September—the start of the St. Mihiel Offensive—is quite lengthy, despite bad weather. 

Accounts by pilots and crew members are scattered throughout the narrative. These accounts range from a few sentences to a few paragraphs, and they serve to more vividly illustrate the air combat described by the authors. 

Aerial combat is by nature exciting, exhilarating, and terrifying. Reading these accounts, one may also learn of other interesting aspects of the airwar. For example, the British used decoy balloons, packed with explosives to be detonated by the ground crew “with the intention of taking the attacker with it” (p. 81). On 14 September, an unsuspecting Leutnant Friedrich Noltenius of Jasta 27 attacked one such balloon. Afterward he wrote: 

As soon as I was on the same level as the balloon, I applied full throttle and flew directly towards it. At a distance of 300 metres I began to fire and closed in, firing continuously. I only wanted to press the attack home when suddenly, while I was a mere 50 metres away, a gigantic flame arose, which completely engulfed me! The shock hurled me away. I at once took course for the lines after I had discovered that the machine was still in flying condition. But what a shambles she was! (p. 82)

Noltenius was barely able to nurse his burnt airplane back toward German lines. 

In their final chapter, Summary and Conclusions, the authors provide some context and analysis of the preceding air combat narrative. By comparing the state of air combat in September 1918 with that of April 1917, they show advances made by each nation and how those advances impacted air operations and tactics. The roles of reconnaissance, bombardment, pursuit, and close air support all receive attention for each nation. 

Also, the authors provide an analysis of the RAF fighter pilot force as of 1 September. Although not comprehensive (the authors being, after all, at the mercy of the available records), the summary gives such interesting data on the pilots as their various nationalities, age (some readers will be surprised at the youth of the aviators, many of whom were 19 years old and few of whom were as old as 30), length of service, casualties, and victory claims. Also, the authors provide an interesting discussion of aces. As for victories, the authors assert that the “French were much more realistic [than the British and Americans] and in general made by far the most accurate claims” (p. 199). 

Although there are no maps, the book is loaded with photographs of men and aircraft. Seven appendices cover victory claims, day-by-day, for the RAF, French Air Service, US Air Service, Germany, Belgium, and the Independent Air Force (the RAF’s strategic bombing force). These tables give a wealth of detail, including the time of the action, pilot and crew member names, unit, victory number, type of aircraft claimed, and location. Another appendix lists the known German casualties. There are no endnotes, nor is there a bibliography. The index covers only the men mentioned in the text but not necessarily those mentioned in the tables or appendices, a helpful tool for those following a given crew member. 

This book isn’t for the casual reader, nor is it for the student looking for a general history of the air war. It will appeal to readers interested in individual air combat and in reading accounts of how victories were claimed and substantiated. Aficionados of detail and data on aircraft, crew, units, and losses will love this book. It is highly recommended for the airpower specialist who desires to learn about the state of air combat in September 1918. 

Maj Peter L. Belmonte, USAF, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."