The Battles in the Hindenburg Line – The Australian Flying Corps
Following the Allied capture of the strategically important elevated position of Mont St Quentin and the German retreat from the township of Péronne on 2 September 2018 the German Army was pursued east as it retired hastily towards the Hindenburg Line, so named by the Allied forces after German Commander in Chief, Paul von Hindenburg. The Germans referred to it as the Siegfried Line. It was a formidable defensive system comprising five operational zones, or Stellungen, named after figures of German mythology: Wotan, Siegfried, Alberich, Brunhild and Kriemhild.
The Australian Flying Corps was actively in pursuit of the Germans during its approximately 25 kilometre retreat to the Hindenburg Line. The retreat was hastened by further Australian Infantry attacks east of Mont St Quentin between 3-5 September 1918. The First World War Official History, Volume VIII – The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 reports that on 5 September 1918 all air-patrols fired large quantities of machine-gun fire into retreating bodies of enemy infantry and transport.
Every village was burning between the little Cologne and Omignon Rivers; the airmen no longer troubled to locate and count all the fires they saw. Along every road small “living targets” presented themselves for aeroplane machine-gun fire.
A small corps of German Army machine-gunners provided a rear-guard defence for the retreating forces. The German machine-gunners were difficult to locate in the abandoned territory, although aeroplanes of No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, could mark the location of some for the pursuing infantry’s guidance.
German aeroplanes were also active in the retreat, principally engaged in reconnaissance. Engagements of No. 3 Squadron were generally brief and from a distance due to an understandable reluctance of the enemy reconnaissance Halberstadt aeroplanes to stay and fight and lack of speed for effective chasing on behalf of the squadron’s R.E. 8’s. The Official Histories describes the scene in the following manner:
The airmen on September 6th and 7th over the Roisel plains looked down on an inspiring spectacle. The whole army was moving forward in quick pursuit of the German rear-guards – light horse and cyclists in advance; infantry in skirmishing waves and little columns of sections, and vast numbers of other columns in rear; the roads crowded with guns moving up, supply-transport, and engineers’ repair-trains. Forward of this array of the pursuit wheeled the airmen, some already examining the Hindenburg Line defences, others flying lower to reconnoitre centres of resistance chosen by the enemy rear-guards.
During 8-9 September 1918 the advance slowed as German resistance stiffened at the Hindenburg Outpost Line. From September 10-13 rain-storms and high winds set in and hardly any flying was possible until 14 September when the Australian Flying Corps recommenced its duties of photographing enemy defences, gun-positions, tracks and weapons dumps in preparation for the upcoming Allied assault on the Hindenburg Line.
First World War Official Histories, Volume VIII – The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 (11th edition, 1941) – Chapter 20 The Battles in the Hindenburg Line