September 30, 1915: Airplanes Can be Shot Down from the Ground

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A Brief History

On September 30, 1915, the aviation world achieved a milestone of sorts when the first incident of a combat airplane being shot down by ground fire took place over Serbia.  A flight of 3 German Farman 2 man airplanes attacked the Military Technical Institute in the Serbian town of Kragujevac, dropping 45 small bombs on the Serbians.  Serbia had their own surprise waiting, with one of the world’s first anti-aircraft artillery units based on the ground defending that location.  A lucky shot from a Serbian cannon achieved a direct hit on one of the Farmans and shot the plane down, killing both crewmen.  Ever since that day, the Serbian military celebrates September 30th as a holiday for the air defense units of the Serbian military.

Digging Deeper

The historic shot was fired by a Serbian enlisted soldier named  Radivoje “Raka” Ludovac.  Ludovac was using a Serbian cannon (unknown caliber) modified with Polish artillery parts to fire at a high angle.  Without any sights, Ludovac was forced to improvise and sight by looking through the cannon’s bore before firing!  The fact that he hit his target with his first shot is astounding.  Although not a large or powerful country, Serbia had been one of only about 15 countries that had an air force at the beginning of World War I.  Their efforts at developing an anti-aircraft defense from the ground were also among the first.

Ljutovac’s grave

Many military forces have used machine guns to counter attack by airplanes, and pre-World War II American ships often had .50 caliber machine guns as part of their anti-aircraft protection.  Almost as soon as World War II started it was realized heavier arms were needed to counter aerial attacks.  Ground defenses even included .30 caliber machine guns at the early stages of World War II, a totally inadequate level of protection for ground troops and installations.  Rapid fire cannons of 20mm and 40mm were developed with exploding warheads, and airburst rounds fired by larger caliber artillery (57mm up to 120mm) became state of the art during World War II.  Allied development of proximity fused artillery shells made anti-aircraft artillery much more effective, and the 5 inch guns common to US Navy ships became the premier anti-aircraft cannons when paired with proximity fused rounds that would blow up and throw shrapnel when passing near an airplane, making direct hits unnecessary.  Otherwise, time fused anti-aircraft artillery would be set to blow up at a designated altitude that the enemy planes were flying at, as determined by observation or radar.

Later development of ground to air guided missiles, both radar guided and infrared (heat) seeking were developed and became the primary ground based anti-aircraft weapons of choice by the middle to late 1950’s.  Ground based gun systems such as multi-barreled anti-aircraft tanks sporting 20mm or 40mm cannons did not go away and continued to play an important role as defense against low flying aircraft and attack helicopters to this day.  Ships are still equipped with such gun armament as well, especially the rotary multi-barreled “Gatling” style electric powered cannons.

US Coast Guardsmen in the South Pacific man a 20 mm anti-aircraft cannon.

The latest “gun” type kinetic energy anti-aircraft weapon being developed is an array of many, even dozens of barrels in which the rounds are stacked right on top of each other and fired in sequence at a rate never before achieved by conventional arms.  One product is called Metal Storm, which achieves a rate of fire of 1 million rounds per minute!  (Compared to up to 6000 rounds per minute for modern Gatling type machine guns and cannons.)  Such a weapon of sufficient caliber to achieve the range and lethality needed to knock down enemy aircraft, drones, and incoming missiles would fill the sky with so much lead (or other metal) that anything flying in the zone of coverage would be quickly destroyed.

What about rifle fire?  Well, the famous or infamous Bloody Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, was long reported to have been shot down by a Canadian pilot, but careful scientific analysis of the battlefield and the fatal wound suffered by Richthofen indicates he was actually shot down by a single rifle bullet fired by an infantry soldier on the ground.  Warplanes have been shot down by small arms fire from the ground, and when this author was in the Marine Corps (US, that is) we were taught that the Soviets employed a tactic of having every rifleman fire straight up at a measured pace if they were attacked by aircraft at low altitude with the expectation that anyone flying directly overhead would be hit by at least some bullets.  American aircraft in Vietnam certainly were hit at times by groundfire from small arms.

Viet Cong Guerrillas bear automatic weapons and use leafy camouflage as they patrol a portion of the Saigon River in small boats somewhere in South Vietnam.

One weapon unlikely to take down an airplane, especially a large jetliner, is a .50 caliber bolt action rifle, a rifle gun alarmist claim could be used to take down aircraft.  Those gun grabbers are apparently confusing the .50 caliber sniper weapon with the .50 caliber machine gun, and do not understand range and lethality limitations.

As for Private Ludovac?  He was promoted to corporal, decorated, and lived until 1968, a hero of the Great War.

The above images form a World War I montage.  Clockwise from the top: The aftermath of shelling during the Battle of the Somme, Mark V tanks cross the Hindenburg Line, HMS Irresistible sinks after hitting a mine in the Dardanelles, a British Vickers machine gun crew wears gas masks during the Battle of the Somme, Albatros D.III fighters of Jagdstaffel 11

Question for students (and subscribers): Would you rather be the person in the attacking airplane or the person on the ground shooting at the plane?  Have you seen combat footage of anti-aircraft defenses in action?  Have you ever seen the photograph of actress Jane Fonda manning a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Hogg, Ian. Anti-Aircraft Artillery.  Crowood, 2002.

Pridham, C.H.B. ANTI-AIRCRAFT DEFENCE AGAINST LOW-FLYING ENEMY AIRCRAFT. Naval & Military Press, 2016.

Westerman, Edward. Flak: German Anti-Aircraft Defenses, 1914-1945. University Press of Kansas, 2001.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of Ljutovac’s grave in 2012 by Radovanovic Sasa, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.