Despite the notable technological disparity between Turkish military aviation and the more advanced Allied forces, coupled with a considerable shortage of aircraft and equipment, Turkish pilots made significant contributions to the land-based operations on various fronts.
The inaugural aerial mission in the Gallipoli campaign occurred on 5 September 1914, with Lt. Fazıl Bey undertaking a reconnaissance flight over the islands of Tenedos and Limnos. Piloting his Nieuport Hydravion seaplane for 70 minutes, Fazıl Bey identified British warships patrolling outside the Dardanelles, exerting control over vessels entering and exiting the straits. Subsequent reconnaissance flights followed, necessitating the addition of another Nieuport Hydravion, brought from Istanbul to Çanakkale by Captain Savmi Bey, due to the inadequacy of a single seaplane for the task.
By March 1915, three military planes in Gallipoli were operated by German and Turkish pilots, coalescing to form the Turkish 1st Air Squadron under the leadership of German Lieutenant Ludwig Preussner. On 1 March 1915, Lieutenant Cemal Bey executed a bombing mission on the British warship Majestic, causing substantial damage.
During the night of 17/18 March 1915, just before the commencement of the Allied fleet's major attempt to breach the Dardanelles, German pilots Captain Erich Serno and Captain Schneider flew towards Tenedos. Observing a noteworthy concentration of British and French warships and transport vessels, they promptly returned to Çanakkale, providing crucial information to Turkish officers. Their reconnaissance proved pivotal for the success of the Turkish defense the following day. Reconnaissance missions persisted on 18 March, with German Lieutenant Frank Seydler and Captain Hüseyin Bey flying the second wave, spotting 13 warships near Mudros.
Leading up to the Allied landings on 25 April, the 1st Aircraft Squadron maintained patrols over the entrance of the Dardanelles and the island of Limnos. These sorties, beyond mere reconnaissance, involved the dropping of bombs on Allied vessels. Simultaneously, the Allies were consolidating their air capabilities. Apprehensive about potential loss of air superiority, the Turks launched an unsuccessful assault on the Allied air base on Tenedos. In retaliation, the British conducted air raids on the Turkish air base in Çanakkale. The meticulous camouflage of Turkish aircraft shielded them from damage during these bombardments.
The initial aerial engagement over Gallipoli unfolded on 2 May. During a reconnaissance mission, Captain Erich Serno and Captain Hüseyin Sedat encountered an Allied aircraft. Employing their pistols, they successfully deterred the enemy from approaching Turkish lines.
At the commencement of the Allied landings, the Turkish aircraft squadron, comprising a mere four planes—of which one was a seaplane—was attached to the Command of Çanakkale Fortified Zone rather than the Turkish Fifth Army. This organizational arrangement impeded the squadron's effective deployment in the Turks' resistance against the Allied invasion. Concurrently, the Allies, utilizing a tethered balloon hovering at an altitude of 200 meters, observed Turkish positions. Affixed to a British vessel anchored off Arıburnu, the balloon provided crucial intelligence enabling Allied artillery to inflict substantial damage on Turkish formations. Although the Turkish aircraft failed to sink the ship, their raids compelled the balloon to intermittently descend.
In subsequent months, Turkish aviation diligently executed their missions, engaging in aerial bombardments of Allied positions and vessels, conducting reconnaissance operations, and disseminating psychological warfare through the distribution of informational leaflets among Allied troops. Concurrently, the Allies intensified their aerial activities, with 13 British aircraft launching attacks on Turkish artillery emplacements, strategic locations at Arıburnu and Seddülbahir, and Turkish airbases throughout May and June.
By July, the deployment of the 1st Aircraft Squadron, under the command of the Fifth Army, marked a pivotal development. Regrettably for the Turkish forces, an air raid on the Çanakkale airbase resulted in the destruction of three Turkish aircraft, compelling the squadron to temporarily suspend its operations. Facing a critical shortage of aircraft, Turkey engaged in protracted negotiations, eventually securing the commitment of 20 aircraft from Germany. Stored in Hungary, these aircraft were intended to embark on a six-hour flight to Istanbul, avoiding Bulgarian airspace. However, logistical challenges ensued, leading to crashes and confiscations along the route. Ultimately, only 11 aircraft successfully reached Istanbul, a number later augmented as Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, facilitating a land route between Germany and the Ottoman capital.
Notwithstanding reinforcements in terms of both aircraft and personnel, air supremacy over Gallipoli eluded the Turkish forces. Nonetheless, Turkish aircraft seized every available opportunity to identify enemy artillery positions and mount attacks using bombs and aircraft arrows. The responsibilities of the Turkish 1st Aircraft Squadron extended to impeding enemy aircraft from relaying information regarding Turkish positions to ground artillery and neutralizing fixed balloons.
In September 1915, a newly established Turkish air base in Tekirdağ, strategically positioned between Istanbul and Çanakkale, expanded the operational capacity for Turkish aircraft. Subsequent to the arrival of fresh planes from Germany in November 1915, Turkish pilots initiated reconnaissance flights encompassing a broader area, including Alexandroupoli and Saros Bay. During one of these missions, Turkish aviators achieved a significant milestone by downing an Allied plane for the first time. On 30 November, while piloting their AK I Albatros, Lieutenant Ali Rıza Bey and his observer Lieutenant Orhan Bey engaged and brought down a French plane. The aircraft plummeted in flames, its fuel tank pierced, crashing between İntepe and Cape Helles.
As the Gallipoli campaign ended and the Allies began to evacuate the peninsula, the Turkish 1st Aircraft Squadron had only a handful planes left intact. Still, reconnaissance activities continued. On December 25, three Turkish planes bombed the island of Imbros and spotted an increase in the number of transport vessels around the island. Tthe Allies were indeed leaving.
Following the culmination of the Gallipoli campaign and the onset of the Allies' evacuation from the peninsula, the Turkish 1st Aircraft Squadron faced a diminished fleet. Despite the limited resources, reconnaissance operations persisted. On 25 December, three Turkish planes bombed the island of Imbros and observed a surge in the number of transport vessels around the island, confirming the Allies' departure.
Post the conclusion of the Gallipoli campaign, the British retained control of their air bases in the Northern Aegean islands. Operating from these bases, they maintained surveillance over the Dardanelles, monitored Thrace's railroad activities, and conducted air raids on Istanbul. In addition to these British activities, the looming possibility of renewed landings necessitated the Turks to maintain their air power in the region at optimal strength.
To counter British operations, the recently arrived 6th Fokker Squadron from Germany was stationed in Gallipoli. Throughout 1916, squadron pilots engaged in multiple encounters with British planes, achieving notable successes. German Captain Buddecke, in particular, single-handedly shot down five enemy planes. Additionally, they conducted bombing missions on various targets around the islands of Tenedos, Imbros, Limnos, and Thassos.
In 1917, British aircraft consistently utilized the North Aegean bases for launching sorties on Istanbul and Izmir. The 6th Fokker Squadron, under the command of German Lieutenant Croneiss, operated alongside the 1st Squadron and a German Seaplane Squadron in Gallipoli. Simultaneously, the 1st Seaplane Squadron, led by Captain Savmi Bey, and the 5th Aircraft Squadron, initially commanded by Lieutenant Faller and later by Lieutenant Fannenstiel, were stationed in Izmir. The 15th Aircraft Squadron was positioned in Uzunköprü. These squadrons sustained their operations, which involved intelligence gathering and engaging not only British aircraft but also Russian counterparts departing from warships off the Bosphorus, targeting specific locations. In May 1918, they received reinforcement from the 12th Aircraft Squadron.
Throughout the war, Turkish aircraft squadrons stationed in Gallipoli, Uzunköprü, Istanbul, and Izmir played a pivotal role in countering enemy activities. In addition to the aforementioned responsibilities, they provided support for naval operations. One notable instance involved the warships Yavuz and Midilli bombing Imbros and Mudros. Despite Midilli sinking and Yavuz sustaining damage in the raid, Turkish planes played a crucial role by furnishing air cover and engaging both British and Greek aircraft.
Following the Ottoman Empire's entry into the First World War , Turkish military aviation experienced a significant setback. On 6 November 1914, the Russian naval forces dealt a substantial blow by sinking three Turkish vessels off Zonguldak. Among the casualties were two planes, designated for deployment on the Caucasus front, which succumbed with the sunken ships. Piloted by Salim Bey and Fesa Bey, both aviators were subsequently captured and endured a five-year internment in Siberia. Consequently, Turkish forces found themselves compelled to engage in the battles of Köprüköy and Sarıkamış without aerial support.
The year 1915 marked a pivotal moment when the Russians initiated their inaugural air raid against the Turks on 4 March. Recognizing the imminent need for aerial reinforcement, the Third Army communicated with Istanbul, soliciting aircraft. However, owing to the ongoing utilization of planes in Gallipoli, they were instructed to await the arrival of new aircraft from Germany. Throughout 1915, Turkey faced a notable dearth of resources to counter the formidable air power wielded by the Russians.
In 1916, the Turkish 7th Aircraft Squadron, led initially by Captain Ali Rıza Bey and subsequently by German Lieutenant Fünfhausen and Captain Şükrü Bey, and consisting of two Gotha planes, was assigned to the Third Army. The Third Army, facing the advancing Russian forces in Eastern Anatolia after the occupation of Erzurum, strategized a counteroffensive. The Turkish 7th Aircraft Squadron, stationed at the Erzincan air base, was tasked with gathering intelligence on enemy positions surrounding Erzurum.
On 3 July 1916, Russian forces initiated a substantial general offensive across the entire front line stretching from Trabzon to the Lake of Van. Despite the air squadron providing valuable support during subsequent engagements, the Russians successfully captured Erzincan on 25 July 1916. Consequently, the Turkish 7th Aircraft Squadron relocated its headquarters to Suşehri.
Throughout the remainder of the year, Turkish pilots conducted reconnaissance flights over Russian positions. Concurrently, the Turkish 10th Aircraft Squadron, commanded by German Lieutenant Westfa and comprising four planes, was established and allocated to the Second Army, engaged in the Caucasian front. Positioned in Elazığ, this squadron promptly undertook reconnaissance missions, albeit facing challenges such as a severe lack of spare parts and maintenance issues.
The extensive responsibility assigned to the Turkish 7th Aircraft Squadron prevented effective observation of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea and the movements of Russian troops along the Black Sea coast. Consequently, the Turkish 8th Aircraft Squadron, commanded by Captain Yakup Sami Bey and equipped with two planes, was established. Based in Giresun, this squadron conducted reconnaissance flights over Erzincan, Tercan, Kelkit, Kemah, and Refahiye. However, due to an insufficient number of pilots and inadequate conditions at its air bases, the squadron could not achieve the desired level of effectiveness.
In the early months of 1917, the amalgamation of the Second and Third Armies occurred under the leadership of Ahmet İzzet Paşa, as preparations for a spring offensive against the Russians were underway. The 10th Squadron conducted numerous reconnaissance flights, particularly over Erzincan, Muş, Bitlis, Malazgirt, Tutak, and Başkale, acquiring valuable intelligence on enemy positions.
A significant milestone for Turkish aviators in the Caucasian front transpired on 13 February 1917 when they executed bombing raids on the Russian air base in Erzincan and the Russian headquarters in Yerhani. In response, the Russians swiftly retaliated by bombing Refahiye and subsequently Giresun, resulting in the destruction of the aircraft hangar. Russian aerial activities emanated from air bases in Erzincan, Haydarabad (Persia), and Erzurum, while concurrently, the Russian fleet bombarded Turkish coastal towns such as Giresun, Ordu, Samsun, and Ünye.
Throughout the latter part of 1917, both adversaries heightened their aerial operations. While Turkish reconnaissance flights increased, the Russians reinforced their air presence in this theatre, establishing a robust air defense network to maintain their aerial supremacy. Nonetheless, Turkish pilots persistently targeted the Erzincan air base, repeatedly inflicting damage on grounded Russian aircraft.
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia marked a turning point, stalling the Russian advance on the Caucasus front. The Russian forces at the frontline were replaced by Armenian irregular units. Subsequently, on 3 March 1918, the Ottoman Empire concluded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, resulting in the cession of Batumi, Kars, and Ardahan to the Ottoman Empire.
In April 1918, the Turkish Third Army initiated an offensive to reclaim lost territories, successfully recapturing Trabzon, Erzurum, Kars, Van, and Batumi in clashes with Armenian militia. Concurrently, an air command was established in Batumi to support the campaign, but its efficacy was hindered by a dearth of operational aircraft, logistical support, and personnel. The Treaty of Batumi, signed with the Republic of Armenia in June 1918, and the Armistice of Mudros on 30 October 1918, marked the cessation of hostilities on this front. Turkish forces, including the air squadrons, commenced the evacuation of the towns they had previously seized in the Caucasus and Persia.
As the Palestine campaign commenced, the air squadron of the Turkish Fourth Army possessed a meager four planes, with only one, a Rumpler, functioning optimally. Throughout the First Suez Offensive, Turkish troops experienced a lack of air support, in stark contrast to the effective coordination of Allied artillery fire by French and British aircraft against the Turkish forces.
By 1 April 1916, the German air unit, Fliegerabteilung 300, commonly referred to as the Pascha unit, had established its presence in Beersheba. Under the command of Captain Hellmuth Felmy, this unit boasted 14 Rumpler C.I type aircraft. Shortly after its integration into the campaign, the unit conducted a strategic aerial manoeuvre over Egypt, targeting and bombing the British air base at Port Said. Subsequent to this operation, a series of reconnaissance flights ensued, coupled with renewed assaults on Port Said in May 1916. The primary objective was the destruction of British aircraft on the ground before they could embark on their aerial missions.
Upon repositioning at El-Arish, the Fliegerabteilung 300 Pascha emerged as a formidable adversary against the British. Beyond their incursions on British airbases and troops, the unit engaged in the dissemination of propaganda leaflets over Egyptian towns. On 18 June 1916, a noteworthy event unfolded as 11 British planes executed a raid on the airbase in El-Arish. While successfully eliminating two Turkish planes, they incurred a loss of two of their own to Turkish anti-aircraft fire.
In early August 1916, Turkish forces launched an offensive against the Suez, encountering a well-prepared Allied force at Romani. Amidst the confrontation, Fliegerabteilung 300 executed aerial bombardments, downed a British aircraft, and inflicted substantial damage upon the British headquarters in Muhammadiyah. Despite their efforts, the Turks, facing numerical inferiority, were compelled to withdraw after two days of intense fighting. This offensive prompted the British to extend their defensive perimeter of the Canal deeper into the Sinai. Consequently, the opportunity arose for the British to advance.
Fliegerabteilung 300 conducted reconnaissance flights over Sinai and the Red Sea, relaying valuable intelligence on enemy movements to the Turkish Fourth Army headquarters. In response to the intelligence provided by Pascha pilots, the Turks opted to retreat to Maghdaba. The British successfully captured this town on 23 December 1916, prompting the Turkish forces to withdraw to the Gaza-Beersheba line.
By March 1917, as British forces progressed towards Gaza, Fliegerabteilung 300 vigilantly monitored their movements. The reconnaissance efforts undertaken by Pascha pilots not only assisted Turkish field commanders during the Battles of Gaza but also resulted in significant damage to British water systems. Notable instances include the bombing of Romani water facilities on 4 April and Selmana facilities on 19 April.
In response to the provocations of Fliegerabteilung 300, the British retaliated with comparable force, transforming the Palestinian theatre into a venue for reciprocal air raids. On 4 May, six Pascha planes bombed the British airfield at Balah, eliciting a prompt response from the British, who dropped 20 bombs on the Turkish airfield at Ramlah the following day. Subsequently, the Balah airfield endured another bombing raid one day later.
Established in May 1917, the Yıldırım Army Group saw the allocation of four new aircraft squadrons: Fliegerabteilung 301, 302, 303, and 304. Aircraft arriving from Germany were transported by train from Istanbul's Haydarpaşa Station to the front. Unfortunately, soon after Fliegerabteilung 301 departed for Aleppo, a significant fire erupted at the station, likely due to arson, resulting in severe damage to the remaining aircraft.
Simultaneously, the British held air superiority over Palestine, boasting a greater number of aircraft. During the Third Battle of Gaza, the British strategically maintained continuous airborne presence to thwart the reconnaissance flights of Pascha pilots. Consequently, a quarter of the Turkish/German aircraft fleet was lost in battle during this period.
In February 1918, General Liman von Sanders assumed command of the Yıldırım Army Group, succeeding General Falkenhayn. This transition prompted a comprehensive reorganization of Turkish forces in the Palestine theater of war, impacting the air squadrons as well. At that juncture, the army group operated 36 functional planes, encompassing those of the recently established Fliegerabteilung 305. However, these aircraft, while numerically sufficient, were technically inferior to their British counterparts and faced a critical shortage of spare parts, rendering efficient reconnaissance flights increasingly challenging.
In early 1918, the entirety of fighter planes assembled at the airfield in Jenin under the command of German Lieutenant Hellmuth Felmy. Concurrently, the British forces advanced in Palestine, while the Arabs launched attacks from the southern region in Jordan. To monitor the activities of the Arab rebels and respond when necessary, a distinct air squadron was established in Amman, commanded by German Captain Hellmuth Bieneck. Throughout the year, this unit conducted various operations against the Arab rebels.
The year 1918 bore witness to persistent aerial conflicts between Turkish/German and British aircraft, accompanied by reciprocal air raids on respective airfields and military units. Notably, a significant Turkish/German operation during this period involved an air raid on British positions at Katrana and Tafiyle in August 1918. In response, the British conducted an air raid on Turkish airfields a few days later.
As the Turks found themselves in retreat, particularly evident after the Battle of Nablus in September 1918, Fliegerabteilung 302, 303, and 305 were amalgamated and placed under the command of Captain İlyas Bey. Operating from the airfield in Dera, this unit proved effective against the Arab rebels, providing support for the retreating Turkish troops. However, the inevitability of British advancement to Dera became apparent. The aircraft were initially relocated to Rayak and subsequently to other airfields further north, including Aleppo and Hama. These airfields were in a deplorable state, subjected to British aerial assaults along the way, with a lack of spare parts and repair materials. Ultimately, all planes under Turkish control were rendered inoperable by day's end. Consequently, the flight personnel had no recourse but to proceed to their headquarters in Aleppo and Konya, awaiting the impending armistice.
Following the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in 1916, the Turkish garrison situated in Medina urgently telegraphed Istanbul, seeking the deployment of an air squadron to counteract the rebellious forces. Responding to this request, three aircraft from the 3rd Air Squadron were assigned for this purpose and promptly dispatched to Medina. However, a notable impediment arose as the pilots entrusted with this critical task had recently completed their training in Germany and, regrettably, lacked the requisite experience.
Upon the arrival of both aircraft and pilots in Medina, a series of unfortunate accidents transpired. The Fourth Army, responsible for managing efforts against the Arab rebels, erroneously deduced from these incidents that the available aircraft were unsuitable for operations in hot temperatures. Consequently, a request for new aircraft was communicated to Istanbul, and, pending their arrival, assistance was sought from Fliegerabteilung 300 in Palestine.
While the Ottoman High Command acceded to the Fourth Army's requisitions, lingering doubts persisted regarding the aircraft's capability to operate effectively in elevated temperatures. In an effort to address these concerns, Pilot Lieutenant Fazıl Bey assumed command of the 3rd Air Squadron and was dispatched to Medina in September 1916 to assess the aircraft's performance. Following thorough evaluation, he reported that the aircraft stationed in Medina could indeed operate seamlessly in the prevailing weather conditions. The prior accidents, Lieutenant Fazıl Bey concluded, were attributable to the pilots' lack of experience rather than any inherent technical deficiencies in the aircraft.
Upon assuming command, Fazıl Bey orchestrated a significant enhancement in the operational efficacy of aircraft in supporting Turkish forces against Arab insurgents. Throughout 1917, the 3rd Aircraft Squadron, led by Fazıl Bey, executed numerous fruitful reconnaissance flights and air raids targeting Arab positions from its operational base in Maan.
Towards the latter part of 1917, as the scope of the defensive responsibilities broadened and British aircraft began aiding the Arab rebels, the 3rd Aircraft Squadron approached the Ottoman High Command, petitioning for the deployment of a new German air squadron to the Hejaz region. Regrettably, this request met with refusal, citing the Germans' existing shortage of aircraft, particularly on the Western front. Consequently, it was deemed unfeasible to requisition aircraft from Germany for allocation in Arabia. Subsequently, throughout the remainder of the conflict, the 3rd Aircraft Squadron continued its sorties. However, due to a shortage of available aircraft, its impact on land operations remained inherently limited.
As the Mesopotamian campaign commenced, the British enjoyed substantial air support, while the Turks lacked any aircraft. Subsequently, an astute recognition emerged: the captured British aircraft could be repurposed for reconnaissance missions. Pilots Captain Fettah Bey, Lieutenant Fazıl Bey, and Lieutenant Mehmet Ali Bey began conducting aerial reconnaissance over British positions during the siege of Kut.
In December 1915, the 2nd Aircraft Squadron, comprising nine planes and 11 personnel under the command of German Captain Franz von Aulock, was deployed to Baghdad. It fell under the jurisdiction of the Turkish XVIII Corps, establishing new airfields initially at Aziziye and subsequently at Kut.
The year 1916 proved to be a triumph for the Turks on the Mesopotamian front. During this period, the British were compelled to retreat southwards, with Turkish aircraft playing a pivotal role in these operations through both reconnaissance flights and air raids. The technical superiority of Turkish planes over their British counterparts conferred a distinct advantage upon the Turks in the air. Simultaneously, the 2nd Aircraft Squadron supported Turkish endeavours in Iran against the Russians. By May 1916, the aircraft in this theatre were reorganised as the 12th Aircraft Squadron, placed under the command of the Turkish XIII Corps. This squadron executed several successful missions against Russian forces.
In early 1917, the balance shifted against the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia. British forces, having strengthened their ground troops, assumed the offensive. Concurrently, the Ottoman Air Force faced depletion, particularly the 2nd Aircraft Squadron, which, having conducted numerous missions without replacements, possessed only four remaining planes; the 12th Aircraft Squadron faced total incapacitation.
Notwithstanding the scarcity of aircraft, the 2nd Aircraft Squadron persisted in undertaking reconnaissance missions over British positions. On April 3, the squadron's commander, Captain German Schutz, executed a mission around Belt and Simige, where he encountered and compelled a British aircraft to land. Subsequently, Schutz successfully downed two additional British planes on April 15 and 28, respectively.
Reinforcements arrived in May, not only revitalising the 2nd Squadron but also resurrecting the defunct 12th Squadron. Throughout the ensuing year, both squadrons demonstrated efficacy by supporting ground forces through reconnaissance flights, bombing ground targets, and engaging British aircraft. By the year's conclusion, the 2nd Squadron possessed eight planes and stationed itself to the west of El-Ashiq, while the 12th Squadron occupied Kifri. These squadrons amalgamated in May 1918.
Reconnaissance flights persisted during the initial half of 1918, but the trajectory was irrevocable. British forces, assisted by aircraft, compelled the Ottoman forces northward, leaving little recourse for the remaining Turkish pilots.
- Buddecke, H.J., “Çanakkale Üzerinde Bir Şahin” (A Falcon over Çanakkale), Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, Istanbul, 2009 (translated by Erdemoğlu, B. from the German original titled “El Schahin” published in 1918).
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