If today’s fighting machines seem versatile compared to the cheaper hardware of 40 or so years ago, it’s a full circle process. In aviation’s early days, specialization didn’t exist. If it could get into the air–precarious enough before the Great War–it was an airplane, and it might be called upon to do more or less anything, by more or less anyone. (Compare this to the incredible technology seen today, such as in the best drones.) So while the Taube (literally: dove) may be called the first “fighter” to see combat, it is just as likely the first bomber and the first combat observation aircraft.
Awkward and fragile as it seems approaching the 21st Century, the Taube was a very graceful design for its day. It should not be compared with today’s sleek machines, or even with later World War I fighters, but with the pioneer box-kite Curtiss and Wright biplanes, its true contemporaries.
Taube’s first clash came in Libya in 1911, under Italian command. Two of the aircraft accompanied the mission against the Turks, and Lieutenant Guilio Favotti employed a broomhandle Mauser pistol and some two-kilogram bombs on raids that November.
Austrian designer Igo Etrich was inspired by the birds in this design, but based much of the design on a winged plant seed, Zanonia macrocarpa. Extensive rigging actually warped the wingtips to act as ailerons. The lines and pulleys demanded considerable leverage, and the aircraft was fitted with a steering wheel for mechanical advantage. The system required constant trimming, as the cables stretched under stress.
Fourteen companies built the Rumpler-owned design, including Albatros, Gotha, and Halberstadt, resulting in a profusion of small variations. Owing to field modifications and the plethora of manufacturers, and to several subgenerations of the basic machines, it is uncommon in period photos to note two truly identical specimens, and historians have difficulty deciding who made any given airframe.
Taubes served only about six months’ active duty in the front lines of World War I, but since these early monoplanes comprised about half Germany’s 246 available aircraft strength at the opening of hostilities, they saw considerable duty in many roles. They were in use immediately, and discovered the big Russian advance at the Battle of Tannenberg. One became notorious as the “Five O’clock Taube”, philosophical progenitor to the Japanese “Washing Machine Charley” over Guadalcanal, an irritatingly regular visitor over Paris in August of 1914, dropping three-kilogram bombs, leaflets, and regular demands for the city’s immediate surrender.
By 1914, however, the Taube was already obsolescent, and saw most of its military application as an observation aircraft, trainer, and utility machine with fighter squadrons.
The serious student of aviation will note in the Thompson Historical Aircraft Photo Collection that the Taube looks like a fragile antique next to aircraft designed only a few months later, and even more archaic compared to contemporary firearms. It undoubtedly already looked ancient by 1915, when the last production aircraft were less than one year old. In comparison, take a look at the photos of the P-51, last built in 1946, or the Sabre Jet, introduced in 47-48, which still look quite sleek and modern nearing fifty years down the line. The rate of progress early in aviation’s history was breathtaking, materials changing even faster than designs, whereas today, major breakthroughs are actually quite rare.