The Balloon Busters

Robert Walsh

Belgian ace Willy Coppens, top-scoring ‘balloon buster’ of the First World War.

The First World War was unusual in many ways. One was that, for the first time in military history, the air became a battlefield. No longer were combatants confined to land and sea, now they could exploit the military potential of what in 1914 was a relatively new invention – the aircraft.

The sheer speed at which aircraft evolved from barely more than powered gliders into fully-fledged weapons was staggering. In 1914 aircraft were so fragile and underpowered that carrying even the weight of a machine gun was usually beyond them. By 1918 there existed fighters, bombers, reconnaissance aircraft and the weapons and tactics had evolved.

In 1914 a typical dogfight often consisted of one aircraft from either side with pilots firing their service pistols at each other. By 1918 aircraft were stronger, faster, more agile and carried…

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