Air Warfare in Eastern Macedonia
The Macedonian Campaign 1915-18 was one of the most controversial campaigns of WW1. The allied troops famously described by Clemenceau as the “Gardeners of Salonika”. In the view of the ‘Westerners’ it was a waste of men and material which could have been used more effectively on the western front. For others it was an opportunity to attack the soft underbelly of the central powers and end the trench bound stalemate in France.
After the early battles in 1915 the front line remained fairly stable until the successful 1918 offensive. The British sector of the line ran from the Vardar valley around Lake Doiran, down the Struma valley to Lake Tahinos and the coast at the Gulf of Orfano. Their main opponents in Eastern Macedonia were the Turkish XX Corps and the Bulgarian 2nd Army.
Air support for the British forces on the Struma Front was mainly provided by 17 Squadron which arrived in July 1916. 47 Squadron arrived in September and the RNAS had a base on the Island of Thasos. The Bulgarian air force was equipped largely by Germany and the 1st Flying section was stationed on the Struma front.
Very little has been written about air warfare on this front. The role of the RFC and RNAS gets a brief reference in the official histories and an occasional mention in the published memoirs. However, unusually the only German memoir translated into English from this campaign was written by Captain Haupt Heydemarck who commanded the German staffel based at Drama. This small unit of three reconnaissance aircraft and a scout machine provided support to the Turkish XX Corps and the Bulgarian 10th Division.
A good indication of the state of the roads in Macedonia!
Heydemarck’s memoir ‘War Flying in Macedonia’ provides a fascinating insight into air warfare on the Struma front. The main task was aerial reconnaissance, photographing British positions for the Bulgarian artillery. They also took part in bombing raids on British airfields. The scout pilot was the German ace, Lt. Von Eschwege who achieved sixteen kills before his Albatross was damaged by a balloon which exploded after his attack and he died in the subsequent crash. His exploits dominate the book along with 36 plates which include excellent aerial photographs of Salonika and the Struma valley.
There was a mutual appreciation with the British pilots which included sending messages to confirm the survival of pilots who crashed behind each others lines. Pilots from 17 Squadron went so far as to suggest a social gathering on the eastern shore of Lake Tahinos. The meassage read “As we have met so often in the air and peppered one another, we should also be very pleased to make the personal acquaintance of the German airmen of Drama”. On another occasion after dining with his captors a British pilot sent a message back to his base asking them to drop over some army coffee as the Germans only had tea. A few days later the coffee duly arrived!
Quite apart from enemy action the reliability of the aircraft was a major concern. Crash landings were commonplace, usually because of engine failure. Although Bulgarian anti-aircraft fire did not differentiate between German and British aircraft! Machine guns frequently jammed and it was not unheard of for them to shot off the aircraft’s own propeller.
Altogether a well written and fascinating insight into air warfare during the First World War.
The translation of Captain Heydemarck’s War Flying in Macedonia was published by John Hamilton Ltd in 1938.
The standard one volume history of the Salonika campaign is Alan Palmer’s The Gardeners of Salonika published by Andre Deutsch 1965. A more recent publication in print is Alan Wakefield's Under the Devil’s Eye published by Sutton 2004.
The two volume British official history Military Operations: Macedonia has been reprinted by the Battery Press.
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