Although the capabilities of Turkish military aviation were far behind those of the Allied forces, and there was a serious lack of aircraft and equipment, Turkish pilots have substantially contributed to the efforts of the forces on land at various fronts.
The first aerial operation during the Gallipoli campaign was Lt. Fazıl Bey’s reconnaissance flight over the islands of Tenedos and Limnos on September 5, 1914. Flying for 70 minutes on his Nieuport Hydravion seaplane, Fazıl Bey discovered British warships patrolling outside the Dardanelles and controlling the vessels entering and leaving the straits. Other reconnaissance flights followed, and since one single seaplane was not enough for the task, another Nieuport Hydravion was brought from Istanbul to Çanakkale by Cpt. Savmi Bey.
As of March 1915, there were three military planes in Gallipoli manned by German and Turkish pilots. These were brought together to form the Turkish 1st Air Squadron, under the command of the German Lt. Ludwig Preussner. On March 1, 1915, Lt. Cemal Bey dropped bombs on the British warship Majestic, inflicting substantial damage.
On the night of March 17/18, 1915, a few hours before the Allied fleet commenced its major attempt to force the Dardanelles, German pilots Cpt. Erich Serno and Cpt. Schneider were flying towards Tenedos. They spotted a remarkable concentration of British and French warships and transportation vessels. They returned to Çanakkale and informed the Turkish officers there about the situation. Their reconnaissance proved to be extremely useful for the success of the Turkish defense the next day. Reconnaissance missions continued throughout the day of March 18, and German Lt. Frank Seydler together with Cpt. Hüseyin Bey flew the second wave spotting 13 warships near Mudros.
Until the Allied landings of April 25, the 1st Aircraft Squadron continued to fly over the entrance of the Dardanelles and the island of Limnos. These were not only for reconnaissance, the planes have also dropped bombs on Allied ships. Meanwhile the Allies were also forming up their air power. Fearing of losing the air superiority, the Turks attacked the Allied air base on Tenedos, an unsucessful attempt avenged by the British who bombed the Turkish air base in Çanakkale. Since the Turkish aircraft were carefully camouflaged, the bombing did not cause any damage.
The first air battle over Gallipoli took place on May 2. As they were flying a reconnaissance mission, Cpt. Erich Serno and Cpt. Hüseyin Sedat encountered an Allied plane. They fired their pistols and deterred the enemy from approaching the Turkish lines.
As the Allied landings kicked off, the Turkish aircraft squadron had only four aircrafts, one of which was a seaplane; and it was attached to the Command of Çanakkale Fortified Zone, not to the Turkish Fifth Army, which prevented the efficient employment of the squadron in the Turks' effrots agains the Allied invasion force. In the meantime, the Allies were observing the Turkish lines using a fixed balloon at an altitude of 200 meters. The balloon was attached to a British vessel anchored off Arıburnu and thanks to the intelligence it was providing, the Allied artillery was inflicting serious damage on Turkish formations. Although the Turkish aircraft did not manage to sink the ship, through their raids they forced the balloon to descend from time to time.
Over the following months, Turkish aircraft continued successfully with their operations, bombing Allied lines and ships, doing reconnaissance and dropping leaflets on Allied troops for psychological warfare. Meanwhile, the Allies were also escalating their air operations. A total of 13 British planes attacked Turkish artillery positions, strategic targets at Arıburnu and Seddülbahir, as well as Turkish airbases during May and June.
In July, the 1st Aircraft Squadron was deployed under the command of the Fifth Army. Unfortunately for the Turks, an air raid on the airbase in Çanakkale destroyed three Turkish planes, hence forcing the squadron to halt its operations temporarily. The Turkish side was in dire need for new aircraft and after long discussions, Germany agreed to provide 20 of them. These planes were stored in Hungary, from where they were supposed to fly to Istanbul -a flight of six hours- without trespassing Bulgarian territory. Some of the planes crashed on the way and some were confiscated; at the end of the day only 11 planes reached Istanbul. This number was to increase when Bulgaria joined the war on the side of the Central Powers, thus opening the land route between Germany and the Ottoman capital.
Despite the reinforcement in terms of both aircraft and personnel, air superiority in Gallipoli remained with the Allies. Still, Turkish planes used every opportunity to identify enemy artillery positions and to attack them with bombs and aircraft arrows. Other duties of the Turkish 1st Aircraft Squadron included preventing enemy aircraft from communicating information related to Turkish positions to their artillery on the ground and eliminating fixed balloons.
In September 1915, a new Turkish air base was established in Tekirdağ, halfway between Istanbul and Çanakkale, hence providing greater maneuver space for Turkish aircraft. Following the arrival of new planes from Germany in November 1915, Turkish pilots began to fly reconnaissance flights over a larger zone covering Alexandroupoli and Saros Bay. It was during one of those flights, when the Turks shot down an Allied plane for the first time. On November 30, flying in their AK I Albatros, Lt. Ali Rıza Bey and his observer Lt. Orhan Bey encountered and shot a French plane, which went down in flames with a pierced fuel tank, 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.
After the Gallipoli campaign was over, the British maintained their air bases on the islands of the Northern Aegean. Flying from these bases, they controlled the Dardanelles, monitoring activities on the railroads in Thrace and launching air raids on Istanbul. Beside these activities of the British, renewed landings could be possible at any time and therefore the Turks had to keep their air power in the region at full strength.
The 6th Fokker Squadron, recently arrived from Germany, was stationed in Gallipoli to counter the operations of the British forces. During the year of 1916, pilots of this squadron had several encounters with British planes and achieved great successes. German Cpt. Buddecke has alone shot down five enemy planes. They also bombed several targets around the islands of Tenedos, Imbros, Limnos and Thassos.
In 1917, British planes continued to use the North Aegean bases to launch raids on Istanbul and Izmir. In addition to the 6th Fokker Squadron, commanded by German Lt. Croneiss, the 1st Squadron and a German Seaplane Squadron were also in Gallipoli, whereas the 1st Seaplane Squadron, commanded by Cpt. Savmi Bey, and 5th Aircraft Squadron, commanded by Lt. Faller first and then by Lt. Fannenstiel, were based in Izmir and the 15th Aircraft Squadron was based in Uzunköprü. These squadrons continued with their operations, gathering intelligence and engaging enemy aircraft, not only the British, but also the Russians taking off from warships off the Bosphorus, and bombing specific targets. They were reinforced by the 12th Aircraft Squadron in May 1918.
Until the end of the war, Turkish aircraft squadrons based in Gallipoli, Uzunköprü, Istanbul and Izmir performed a crucial job against enemy operations. Other than the duties mentioned above, they also supported the operations of the navy. One of the last of such operations was the bombing of Imbros and Mudros by warships Yavuz and Midilli. Although Midilli sank and Yavuz was damaged during this raid, Turkish planes played a crucial role in the operation by providing air cover and engaging both British and Greek planes.
Turkish military aviation had received a great blow right after the Empire entered the war. On November 6, 1914, the Russian fleet sunk three Turkish vessels off Zonguldak. Two Bleriot planes that were intended to be used at the Caucasus front went down with the ships. Their pilots Salim Bey and Fesa Bey were taken prisoner and spent the next five years in Siberia. Consequently, Turkish troops had to fight at Köprüköy and Sarıkamış without air support.
It was on March 4, 1915 that the Russians launched their first air raid against the Turks. The Third Army cabled Istanbul asking for aircraft, however since the planes were already in use in Gallipoli, they were told to wait until the new ones arrived from Germany. During 1915, Turks did not have the resources to respond to the air power of the Russians.
In 1916, the Turkish 7th Aircraft Squadron composed of two Gotha planes and commanded by Cpt. Ali Rıza Bey first and later by German Lt. Fünfhausen and Cpt. Şükrü Bey, was allocated to the Third Army.
Having occupied Erzurum, the Russians were advancing through Eastern Anatolia and the Third Army was planning a counteroffensive. The Turkish 7th Aircraft Squadron, positioned at the air base in Erzincan, was appointed the task of gathering information about enemy positions around Erzurum.
On July 3, 1916, Russian forces launched a major general offensive along the whole front line between Trabzon and the Lake of Van. Although the air squadron provided valuable assistance to the Third Army during consequent battles, Russians managed to take Erzincan on July 25, 1916 and the Turkish 7th Aircraft Squadron had to move its headquarters to Suşehri.
For the rest of the year, Turkish pilots continued reconnaissance flights over Russian positions. Meanwhile the Turkish 10th Aircraft Squadron was established with four planes, under the command of the German Lt. Westfa and was allocated to the Second Army, which was also fighting on the Caucasian front. This squadron was positioned in Elazığ and immediately commenced reconnaissance missions, although the aircraft were suffering from a serious lack of spare parts and maintenance.
Since it was already responsible for a very wide area, the Turkish 7th Aircraft Squadron was not able to observe the Russian fleet in the Black Sea and the movements of Russian troops along the Black Sea coast. For this reason, the Turkish 8th Aircraft Squadron was established with two planes, under the command of Cpt. Yakup Sami Bey. Based in Giresun, this squadron carried out reconnaissance flights around Erzincan, Tercan, Kelkit, Kemah and Refahiye, however due to an insufficient number of pilots and inadequate conditions at its air bases, it could not be as effective as desired.
In early 1917, the Second and Third Armies were combined under the command of Ahmet İzzet Paşa, who was preparing for a spring offensive against the Russians. The 10th Squadron executed several reconnaissance flights, especially around Erzincan, Muş, Bitlis, Malazgirt, Tutak and Başkale, gathering information about enemy positions.
One of the greatest achievements of Turkish pilots in the Caucasian front came on February 13, 1917, when they bombed the Russian air base in Erzincan and the Russian headquarters in Yerhani. Russians were quick to retaliate, they bombed first Refahiye and then Giresun, destroying the aircraft hangar there. Russian aircraft were taking off from two air bases in Erzincan, one base in Haydarabad (Persia) and one base in Erzurum. At the same time the Russian fleet was shelling Turkish coastal towns of Giresun, Ordu, Samsun and Ünye.
During the second half of 1917, both sides escalated their air operations. As the Turks began to carry out more reconnaissance flights, Russians brought in more planes to this front in order to maintain their superiority in the air, and established an efficient air defense network. Still, Turkish pilots managed to bomb the air base in Erzincan several times and inflict damage on grounded Russian planes.
Russian advance on the Caucasus front was halted by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and the Russian troops at the front line were replaced by Armenian irregular units. The Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on March 3, 1918, which stipulated that Bolshevik Russia cede Batumi, Kars and Ardahan to the Ottoman Empire.
In April 1918, the Turkish Third Army went on the offensive to recover lost territories. Fighting against Armenian militia, Turks recaptured Trabzon, Erzurum, Kars, Van and Batumi. Meanwhile, a new air command was established in Batumi to support this campaign, however it did not contribute effectively to the efforts of the land forces since the squadrons were suffering from a shortage of functioning aircrafts, logistics support and personnel. With the Treaty of Batumi signed with the Republic of Armenia in June 1918 and the Armistice of Mudros on October 30, 1918, hostilities ended in this front and the Turkish forces, including the air squadrons, began to evacuate the towns they had captured in the Caucasus and Persia.
As the Palestine campaign started, the air squadron of the Turkish Fourth Army had four planes, but only one of them, a Rumpler, was fully functioning. During the First Suez Offensive, Turkish troops received no air support, whereas French and British aircraft were effectively directing the Allied artillery fire against the Turks.
As of April 1, 1916, the German air unit Fliegerabteilung 300, known as the Pascha unit, was stationed in Beersheba. Commanded by Captain Hellmuth Felmy, this unit had 14 Rumpler C.I type aircrafts and a few days after they joined the campaign, they flew over Egypt and bombed the British air base at Port Said. This operation was followed by a series of reconnaissance flights and renewed attacks on Port Said in May 1916, with the purpose of destroying British planes on the ground before they could take off.
Repositioned at El-Arish, the Fliegerabteilung 300 Pascha was extremely effective against the British. In addition to their raids on British airbases and troops, they were also dropping propaganda leaflets on Egyptian towns. On June 18, 1916, 11 British planes raided the airbase in El-Arish; and although they managed to destroy two Turkish planes, they also lost two of theirs to the Turkish anti-aircraft fire.
In early August 1916, Turkish forces tried another offensive against the Suez. They ran into a well-prepared Allied force, this time at Romani. During this battle, Fliegerabteilung 300 bombed the British, shot down a British plane and caused heavy damage on British headquarters in Muhammadiyah. However, outnumbered by the defense, the Turks had to retreat after two days of fighting. This attack convinced the British to push their defense of the Canal further out into the Sinai. It was the time for the British to advance now. Fliegerabteilung 300 made reconnaissance flights over Sinai and the Red Sea, informing the Turkish Fourth Army headquarters on enemy movements. Evaluating the intelligence gathered by Pascha pilots, Turks decided to move back to Maghdaba. This town fell to the British on December 23, 1916 and the Turkish troops retreated to the Gaza-Beersheba line.
In March 1917, as the British forces began to advance towards Gaza, the Fliegerabteilung 300 was monitoring their movements. Not only were these reconnaissance activities useful for the Turkish commanders on the field during the Battles of Gaza, but also the Pascha pilots inflicted serious damage on water systems used by the British, such as the Romani water facilities bombed on April 4 and Selmana facilities bombed on April 19.
The British were responding to the attacks of the Fliegerabteilung 300 with equal strength and soon the battle theater Palestine began to witness exchanges of air raids. For instance, on May 4, six Pascha planes bombed the British airfield at Balah, to which the British responded by dropping 20 bombs at the Turkish airfield at Ramlah the next day. One day later, Balah airfield was bombed again.
The Yıldırım Army Group established in May 1917 was eventually allocated four new aircraft squadrons, which were the Fliegerabteilung 301, 302, 303 and 304. The aircrafts arriving from Germany were sent by train from the Haydarpaşa Station in Istanbul to the front. However, soon after Fliegerabteilung 301 departed for Aleppo, there was a great fire at the station, probably arson, and the rest of the aircraft were badly damaged.
Meanwhile the British had superiority in air over Palestine, in numbers of aircraft. During the Third Battle of Gaza, the British kept their planes aloft at all times in order to prevent the reconnaissance flights of Pascha pilots. During this time a quarter of Turkish/German aircrafts were lost in battle.
In February 1918, General Liman von Sanders replaced General Falkenhayn as the commander of the Yıldırım Army Group, and embarked on a major reorganization of the Turkish forces in the Palestine theater of war, which affected the air squadrons as well. At that time, the army group had 36 functioning planes in service, including those of the newly established Fliegerabteilung 305, however since they were technically inferior to British aircraft and suffering from a serious shortage of spare parts, it was increasingly difficult to undertake reconnaissance flights in an efficient manner.
In early 1918, all the fighter planes were gathered at the airfield in Jenin under the command of the German Lt. Hellmuth Felmy. Meanwhile, as the British were advancing in Palestine, the Arabs were attacking from the south in Jordan. In order to observe the movements of Arab rebels and engage them when necessary, a separate air squadron was established in Amman under the command of the German Captain Hellmuth Bieneck and throughout the year this unit executed several operations against the Arab rebels.
The year 1918 witnessed continued air battles between Turkish/German and British aircraft as well as exchanges of air raids on each other’s airfields and army units. For instance, one of the major Turkish/German operations in this period was the air raid on British positions at Katrana and Tafiyle in August 1918, which was responded to by the British with an air raid on Turkish airfields a few days later.
The war was being lost for the Turks, who had begun to retreat. In September 1918, after the Battle of Nablus, Fliegerabteilung 302, 303 and 305 were merged and deployed under the command of Cpt. İlyas Bey. Operating from the airfield in Dera, this unit was effective against the Arab rebels and made life easier for the retreating Turkish troops. However, it was obvious that the British could not be stopped before they reached Dera. The aircraft were first moved to Rayak and then to other airfields further north such as Aleppo and Hama. These airfields were in terrible shape, British aircraft were attacking on the way and there were neither spare parts nor repair materials. At the end of the day, all the planes in Turkish hands were broken and out of order. The flight personnel had nothing left to do but to go to their headquarters in Aleppo and Konya, and wait for the armistice.
After the Arab Revolt broke out in 1916, the Turkish garrison in Medina cabled Istanbul and asked for an air squadron to be used against the rebels. Three aircrafts from the 3rd Air Squadron was put at its disposal and dispatched to Medina. However, the bad news was that the pilots had only recently finished their training in Germany and lacked experience.
Soon after the aircraft and pilots arrived in Medina, there has been a series of accidents. The Fourth Army, which was in charge of the efforts against the Arab rebels, wrongly concluded from these accidents that the aircrafts in hand were not suitable for flying at hot temperature. Consequently, new aircraft were requested from Istanbul and until their arrival, the Fliegerabteilung 300 in Palestine was asked to come for help.
Although the Ottoman High Command agreed for the demands made by the Fourth Army, there were still some suspicions about the (dis)ability of the aircraft to fly in hot temperatures. Pilot Lt. Fazıl Bey was appointed the new commander of the 3rd Air Squadron and he was sent to Medina in September 1916 to test the aircraft. Having done this, he reported that the planes already stationed in Medina could fly at that weather without any problems, and the previous accidents had resulted from the pilots’ lack of experience rather than technical shortcomings.
After Fazıl Bey took charge, aircraft began to effectively contribute to the Turkish troops’ efforts against Arab rebels. During 1917, the 3rd Aircraft Squadron under the command of Fazıl Bey undertook several successful reconnaissance flights and air raids against Arab positions from its base in Maan.
In late 1917, as the area to defend had expanded and British aircraft had begun to support the Arab rebels, the 3rd Aircraft Squadron asked the Ottoman High Command for the disposal of a fresh German air squadron to be sent to Hejaz. However, this demand was rejected on the grounds that the Germans were already short of aircraft, particularly in the Western front, and therefore it was not possible to ask them for planes to be allocated for Arabia. For the remainder of the war, the 3rd Aircraft Squadron continued to fly missions, however since there were not enough planes, its support for the efforts on the land could only be of a limited influence.
As the campaign in Mesopotamia started, the British were receiving substantial air support, whereas the Turks had no aircraft at all. Soon it was realized that it was possible to use the captured British aircrafts for reconnaissance missions and three pilots, Cpt. Fettah Bey, Lt. Fazıl Bey and Lt. Mehmet Ali Bey began to fly over British positions during the siege of Kut.
In December 1915, the 2nd Aircraft Squadron, consisting of nice planes and 11 personnel under the command of the German Cpt. Franz von Aulock, was deployed to Baghdad, where it would be under the command of the Turkish XVIII Corps, and new airfields were installed, first at Aziziye and then at Kut.
1916 was a successful year for the Turks at the Mesopotamian front. During the year, the British were pushed back to the south and Turkish aircraft played an important role in these operations, both through reconnaissance flights and air raids. Turkish planes were technically superior to the British and therefore the Turks had a clear superiority in air. Meanwhile, the 2nd Aircraft Squadron was also supporting the Turkish efforts in Iran against the Russians. As of May 1916, the aircrafts in this theater were organized as the 12th Aircraft Squadron and given to the command of the Turkish XIII Corps. This squadron flew several successful missions against the Russian forces.
In early 1917, the tide was turning against the Turks in Mesopotamia. The British were now on the offensive with their reinforced troops on the ground. Meanwhile, the Turks’ air force was also exhausted. After several missions without replacements the 2nd Aircraft Squadron had only four planes left, whereas the 12th Aircraft Squadron had none at all.
Despite the fact that there were only a few planes left, the 2nd Aircraft Squadron continued to fly reconnaissance missions over British positions. One of them took place on April 3, when the commander of the squadron, German Cpt. Schutz, flew around Belt and Simige, where he also engaged a British aircraft and forced it to land. Schutz shot two other British planes, on April 15 and 28 respectively.
Reinforcements came in May, and they did not only strengthen the 2nd Squadron, but also revived the 12th, which had run out of planes. For the rest of the year, both squadrons have been efficient, supporting the land forces troops trough reconnaissance flights, bombing ground targets and shooting down British planes. When the year ended, the 2nd Squadron had eight planes and was stationed to the west of El-Ashiq and the 12th Squadron was stationed at Kifri. These two squadrons were eventually merged as of May 1918.
Reconnaissance flights continued during the first half of the 1918, but the situation was irreversible. The British forces, supported by British planes, were forcefully pushing the Turks to the north and there was nothing much left for the few Turkish pilots to do.