The Dawn of American Airpower at St. Mihiel

July 27, 2018

Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker (at St. Mihiel a lieutenant) became the leading ace of World War I and a recipient of France’s Croix de Guerre and the US military’s Medal of Honor. Photo: USAF

Col. William L. “Billy” Mitchell had a lot to prove at the Battle of St. Mihiel—fought between Sept. 12 and Sept. 15, 1918—and so did General John J. Pershing. It was the first attempt at a combined-arms ground and air operation and is viewed by historians as marking the dawn of modern airpower.

“The St. Mihiel attack … was the first operation in the world war carried out by a complete American army under the independent control of its own commander,” according to the official American Battle Monuments Commission.

After the battle, President Woodrow Wilson sent congratulations on the “brilliant achievement,” while Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch called it a “magnificent victory.”

These were generous words, for in the end, the Battle of St. Mihiel wasn’t ranked as one of the major engagements of World War I. The four-day offensive, though, meant everything to the Americans.

By the summer of 1918, the US was still very much the junior partner among the Western allies, despite the 1.2 million American soldiers on the Western Front. The Americans were still firing French artillery, flying French planes and being schooled by French officers.

Marshal Petain summed up the prevailing view at a commanders’ conference when he said: “There is no American army as such, as its units are either in training or are amalgamated with the British and French.”

St. Mihiel was meant to change all that. There were 550,000 troops, 3,000 pieces of field artillery, and over 1,000 aircraft preparing to assault a residual bulge in the German lines after German forces failed in their attempt to encircle Verdun in 1914. Pershing yearned to command American troops in combat and to teach the French and British a thing or two about modern warfare.

Pershing’s army concentrated all energies on preparing for the battle. A brilliant lieutenant colonel named George Catlett Marshall, age 38, was pulled back from command of a regiment to take charge of the operational planning for the offensive. Tanks—including some led by Pershing’s former aide, 32-year-old Col. George S. Patton Jr.—also had a role in the plan.

Mitchell believed St. Mihiel could raise the profile of the Air Service in Pershing’s eyes “if we delivered the goods.” The problem was, Mitchell had nowhere near enough aircraft to pull it off.


A “bare dozen” squadrons; that’s what his British friends figured Mitchell could muster in August 1918. They were right. The US Air Service had 226 pursuit aircraft, 219 observation planes, and 42 bombing aircraft available. Of those, the observation planes were pledged to corps and division commanders for artillery spotting. “This kind of air work has been done now for three years and is well-understood,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell had more in mind, though. His real ambitions hinged on the aviation units assigned only to First Army, which were directly under his command: pursuit, bombardment, and some balloon and observation units. Neither the corps nor the division generals—all of whom outranked him—had any claim on these air forces. With his own force, “I intend to change the ordinary procedure and employ massed air attacks against the vital points in the enemy’s rear,” Mitchell wrote.

For this air campaign, Mitchell planned to concentrate 2,000 aircraft so he could “hit first from one side of the salient, then from the other, just as a boxer gives a right hook and a left hook successively to his opponent.” With strafing and light bombs, Mitchell’s airmen were going to churn up the enemy troops caught in the salient and destroy as much as possible. It all depended on whether he could get the airplanes.

The answer? Charm. Mitchell borrowed 800 aircraft from the French and persuaded Britain to lend him half of British Air Marshal Maj. Gen. Hugh M. Trenchard’s independent bombing force to strike point targets such as rail junctions, airfields, and supply centers.

Mitchell managed to amass almost 1,500 airplanes for the St. Mihiel offensive. Of these, however, only about 1,100 to 1,200 were mission-capable. Never before had this many aircraft massed on the Western Front. The allies had created the most spectacular air armada of the war and placed it in the hands of an upstart American.

Trenchard’s massive Handley Pages and other bombers would attack the night before the battle. Mitchell had Pershing sign out a list of bombing targets, sending the British deep to strike railroad ammunition dumps, the airdromes at Mars-la-Tour, and the rail station at Metz.

At first light, the pursuit squadrons would destroy all hostile aviation in the salient to “insure the absolute liberty of action of our observation aviation and attack balloons throughout this zone,” as stated by Pershing in First Army’s official orders. Pursuit flights of five or six aircraft would set up a double tier, some operating at 7,000 to 11,000 feet, with another layer above 11,000 feet to as high as 20,000 feet to ensure air superiority.

Then, within a few hours, the pursuit aircraft would swing into armed reconnaissance and battlefield interdiction roles. As directed by Mitchell and spelled out in First Army’s official orders, the Air Service would “take every occasion to attack troops, trains, and important targets” on the ground. Low-flying pursuit patrols “should attack with bombs and machine guns” against enemy reinforcements “marching to the attack or enemy elements retreating.” The airmen would bomb enemy concentration points, command posts, and conduct “aerial bombing and fighting in close liaison with our own infantry.”At the same time, daytime bombardment units—some American, many French, and even a few Italian—had a related mission to attack the rail and road junctions in the salient plus “all important objectives such as large gatherings of troops, material, airdromes, and command posts.”

“Nothing like this had ever been tried before,” declared Mitchell. “It marked the beginning of the great strategical air operations away from the troops.”That last remark was frequently misinterpreted (and got Mitchell in trouble for decades) but it is important to realize what Mitchell meant by it.

“Strategical” in the fall of 1918 meant “air attack of enemy material of all kinds behind his lines,” not bombing Berlin.

Mitchell flew over the lines one last time on Sept. 10. It looked like the German forces were preparing to retreat. Back at First Army headquarters, staff counseled delaying the battle due to bad weather. Mitchell told Pershing flatly that “there was not going to be much of a battle at St. Mihiel anyway,” adding that “all we had to do was to jump on the Germans, and the quicker we did it, the better.”

On Sept. 12, the artillery barrage started at 1 a.m. The first observation balloon ascended at 4:40 in the morning, and the troops prepared to go over the hill at 5 a.m.

“It was the greatest Army ever assembled under the American flag,” marveled Mitchell.

Then-Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell (l) and Gen. John Pershing in France during World War I. Mitchell gained his first star for his actions at St. Mihiel. Photo: Bettman-Corbis via US Army


The St. Mihiel salient was abuzz with air activity right from the start of the battle. Pilots compensated for morning fog and rain by flying at extremely low altitude. Pursuit planes from the 147th Aero Squadron reported visibility “good at 500 meters” so that was where they flew their mission from 9:15 a.m. until just before 11 a.m. Some of the observation planes dipped down to between 50 and 100 meters.

Most of the pursuit patrols and ground attack sorties were flown within a relatively small area over the four American divisions advancing from the south. The “various layers of clouds did not prevent constant patrolling,” noted another airman.

Future ace 2nd Lt. Frank Luke Jr. of the 27th Aero Squadron got his first balloon kill at nine minutes past eight that morning. In the 22nd Aero Squadron, a pursuit pilot glimpsed a German observation plane. Its crew saw the Spad and dove to get out of range, but to no avail. “Result—one Hannoveraner diving through a layer of mist to its crash,” the squadron recorded.

With the sky full of allies the defending Germans were outmatched. “Many Allied planes, including bombers, going over lines all over sector,” reported 2nd Lt. Arthur H. Jones of the 147th.

Now Mitchell waited for the roads to fill so he could unleash more pursuit planes and bombers. He kept several squadrons on alert. In the 3rd Pursuit Group, the 103rd Aero Squadron received orders that “all available planes, including those with bomb racks installed, will be held on alert from 8 o’clock, ready to leave within 10 minutes.”

By noon, American ground forces were speeding ahead. Retreating Germans began to jam the roads. By afternoon, “roads leading out of the salient between the two attacks were filled with retreating enemy troops, with their trains and artillery,” said Pershing. He ordered the ground troops to accelerate their forward push.

Air attacks escalated. Shortly after 1 p.m., aviators spotted 2,000-3,000 German troops on the roads into Dampvitoux, now only about six miles ahead of the advance line of the 42nd Division. At 4:15, Mitchell scrambled the 103rd and three other squadrons to bomb and attack retreating German troops. Striking so close to advancing lines of the US, 1st and 42nd Divisions posed a problem. They needed a bomb line to use as a marker. Commanders quickly designated roads between Vigneulles and St. Benoit to control this close air support.

Mitchell’s bombers were in the fight, too. At half past one, the 96th Aero Squadron launched nine bombing aircraft to fly at 2,500 feet to their targets at Dampvitoux. Eight made it there and dropped 248 bombs, returning two hours later.

The Germans were losing men and supplies in the pell-mell flight.Mitchell was delighted with the air operations. “I was very much pleased with the fact that virtually no German airplanes got over our ground troops,” he said.

“The American fliers made themselves very disagreeable,” said the German commander at St. Mihiel, Gen. Max von Gallwitz. “I have experienced a good many things in the five years of war and have not been poor in successes, but I must count the 12th of September among my few black days.”

The St. Mihiel sector after the infamous battle. Photo: Schutz Group Photographers/Library of Congress


Air activity and interdiction picked up on the second day, Sept. 13, as American troops pressed toward their second-day objectives.

Two pilots of the 94th Aero squadron flew three sorties each, hunting for targets. Just before 10 a.m., Lt. Edward Rickenbacker and Lt. Reed Chambers of the 94th Aero Squadron went up the lines toward Vigneulles in poor weather but saw only French and American wagons and German prisoners.Unsatisfied, the pair returned to base, refueled, rearmed, and took off again at 12:26 p.m. West of Vigneulles, just ahead of the 26th division’s advance, they spotted eight German 155 mm artillery pieces drawn by six horses each.

Rickenbacker circled and the artillerymen fled as he “fired probably 20 or 25 shots” before the gun jammed. “Horses and wagons scattered everywhere,” recounted Rickenbacker. The physical damage was not great but the disruption worked. “Now let’s see you straighten up that mess,” Rickenbacker thought as he and Chambers departed.

Back at base, at 3:17 p.m. Rickenbacker went up alone for a voluntary patrol over German positions north of the salient, nearly 10 miles ahead of the front lines. At 3:45, Chambers, with a new wingman, took off for his third armed reconnaissance patrol in front of the 26th, 1st, 42nd, and 89th Divisions, who were digging in on new phase lines.

This was just what Mitchell wanted. Conditions for harassing enemy ground forces were “ideal” in the salient since “the enemy’s withdrawal was limited to a minimum of well-defined and exposed routes.” He was especially satisfied that his air force had piled up the roads “with debris so that it was impossible for many of their troops to get away quickly, resulting in their capture by our infantry.”

However, Mitchell’s concerns about holding on to air superiority had been correct. One patrol bumped into 20 Fokkers late in the afternoon on Sept. 13.The concentration of allied airpower in the salient provided rich pickings for German aces. Lt. David E. Putnam, the top-ranked US ace to that point, got his thirteenth kill at 6:30 p.m. on the first day of the battle when he shot down a Fokker D.VII near Limey. An hour later, his luck ran out, as 20-year old German ace Georg von Hantelman shot Putnam down, killing him instantly. Hantelman shot down seven allied aircraft during the battle.

By the third day, Sept. 14, the Germans were rushing airpower to the St. Mihiel sector. “From an early hour, it became apparent that the enemy had very materially augmented his aerial forces,” noted the operations summary that evening. Clear weather brought the enemies in contact.

A British Handley Page bomber in World War I. Mitchell amassed some 1,500 international aircraft for the St. Mihiel offensive. Photo: AFA

First Pursuit Wing now swung to a pure air superiority role. They could still strafe, but in contrast to the beginning of the battle orders now stated: “No bombs will be placed on any pursuit aeroplanes.”

Mitchell described the terrifying ordeal of a French bombing squadron that failed to link up with its pursuit escorts on Sept. 14. Eighteen planes “huddled together as a flight of geese might when attacked by falcons” and pressed on to the rail junction target at Conflans. But the German aviators tore into them. Only five of 18 bombers returned.

Sorties flown that day surged to 1,140 as pursuit patrols drove the enemy air force to operate at least three to four miles back from the lines. Even as the Americans reached their final ground objectives, the aviators had to wage their toughest battles for air superiority to protect the advance and let bombing aircraft continue their missions.

Fierce air activity continued on Sept. 15. The “enemy aerial activity was very pronounced in its aggressiveness” to the point that “practically every pursuit patrol which crossed the lines was engaged in combat with the enemy,” attested the operations summary.

The 94th Aero Squadron encountered tough resistance about three miles ahead of the 2nd, 5th, and 90th Divisions at the extreme right of the line. Rickenbacker was flying at about 13,000 feet just after 8 a.m. when he spotted six enemy aircraft. He shot down one Fokker D.VII near the Bois de Warville. His squadron mate Lt. Joseph H. Eastman was jumped by four Fokkers barely a mile in front of French troops to the left.

Most of the leading aces scored kills during the last days of St. Mihiel. Eugene S. Coler—who always got his kills two at a time—brought down a pair of Fokker D.VIIs near Esnes. Oren J. Rose, August T. Iaccaci, Elliot W. Springs, and Frederick Libby also shot down German planes in the salient on Sept. 15.By Sept. 16, the salient was completely under American control and the German bulge had ceased to exist. The US First Army took 16,000 German prisoners.

In the five days from Sept. 12 through Sept. 16, observation aircraft flew just under a thousand sorties in support of First Army’s various divisions and corps. Aircraft under Mitchell’s operational control flew about 3,357 pursuit and bombardment sorties.

For Pershing, the battle had been his first opportunity to lead a full American army into battle. For Mitchell, he had successfully planned and commanded the single biggest air offensive of the war.

A strong believer in critiques, Mitchell pointed out the difficulties of the bad weather, deficiencies in liaison between pursuit, observation and the antiaircraft stations, and the increasingly heavy antiaircraft fire. His achievement, though, marked the true introduction of airpower into combined-arms warfare. Thanks to Mitchell, the First Army had seen up close how well wide-ranging air attacks worked in open warfare.

“I am proud of you all,” Pershing enthused.

For his achievements with airpower at St. Mihiel, Pershing promoted Mitchell to the rank of Brigadier General. At 38, he had made his mark at last.