The Air War Escalates 1916-1917

At the start of 1916, the Belgian air force was 6 squadrons strong: 4 for air observation, air photography and bombing, 2 operating as fighter squadrons. With the appearance of increasingly sophisticated Germans fighters, the Belgians received some Nieuport XI & XVII.

During 1916, the belligerents started to attack the observation captive balloons used to direct the artillery. In October, two Belgian balloons were so shot down by German fighters.

In March 1917, the first German Gotha bombers arrived in Gent to form the England Geschwader. The main task of this unit was to bomb Great Britain. 1917 saw also the appearance of the Fokker Dr1 in the German Air Force and the Sopwith Triplane in the RNAS squadrons based in Dunkerke and operating on the Belgian front.

The Belgian observation squadrons were still flying mostly outdated Farmans. Some squadrons were working exclusively for great Army units. The first operational use of radio transmissions between observation aircraft and ground force in the Belgian Air Corps also occurred in 1917.

On 1 may 1917, the future ace, Willy Coppens, took part in his first air combat. He started the war as an infantryman. He transferred to the Air Corps in 1915 and was trained in Hendon (UK) and in Etampes where a Belgian flying school was installed. He joined the front first as an observer pilot flying Sopwith Strutter before to join a fighter squadron.

Another future ace won his first victory on 15 march 1917. Edmond Thieffry will finish the war with 10 victories. He also started the war as an infantryman being a lawyer in the civil life. He joined the Belgian Air Corp in July 1915 in Etampe where he learned to fly.

The period 1916 - 1917 saw the appearance of personal insignias painted on aeroplane for the purpose of easy recognition in flight. Some of the insignias used were comets, thistles, little paper horses and dragons. Some of these personal insignias still survive today as squadron insignias of the modern Belgian Air Force.

In the first months of 1917, Germans Jastas were very active on the Northern France front and in the Ypres sector. Some Belgians aircraft fall victims of the German fighters. The Belgians were also facing fighters from the Marine-Feldjagdstaffel Nº1 based in Nieuwmunster and operating along the coast.

On 4 May, the crew Henri Crombez - Louis Robin from the 6th Squadron mounted a daring raid to Brussels. They take off at dawn and reached the town to drop a Belgian flag. They came back overflying German airfields in Sint Agatha Berchem and Gontrode.

To better understand the situation on the front, King Albert did not hesitate to fly in a Sopwith Strutter as observer on 6 July 1917. He was surely the only chief of state to have flow over the front during WW1.

July 1917 saw intense air activity above the Flanders frontline with the Belgian Air corps flying an average of 120 sorties by day. Germans installed new airfields in small Flemish villages as Aartrijke, Varsenare, Wijnendale and Snellegem. Observation aircraft were extensively used to watch railway activities, troops movements and artillery moves behind the frontlines to detect premises of ground offensives.

In August 1917, Belgian pilots received their first Hanriot HD1. The small fighter was not in great favour with the French but will prove to be a good acquisition for the Belgian aces especially Willy Coppens who won most of his victories on this single machine gun biplane.

On 15 August 1917, the third battle of Ypres started. Although this sector was defended by Commonwealth troops, the Belgian Army and Air Corps were employed in the fights as the Belgian sector is close to the British sector.

The French ace Georges Guynemer also operated over the Flanders front and was finally shot down near Poelkapelle on 11 September. Another Ace, German this time, was killed on 30 July. Werner Voss credited of 48 victories was shot down near his base in Marke (Kortrijk).

In September, Sopwith Camels were delivered to the Belgians. Jan Olieslagers flew Camels until the end of the war. With the bad season arriving, the frontline returned to a calmer state. However in the sky, the British were still very active seeking confrontations with the Germans by means of offensive patrols over and behind the frontline. They moved some squadrons to airfields in Poperinge, Abele and Proven to be close to the front.

On 23th December 1917, the French squadron C74 who had co-operated with the Belgians since the dark days of 1914 left the Belgian sector to be a full French operated unit.