British military service
The DH.4 entered service with the RFC in January 1917, first being used by No. 55 Squadron. More squadrons were equipped with the type to increase the bombing capacity of the RFC, with two squadrons re-equipping in May, and a total of six squadrons by the end of the year. As well as the RFC, the RNAS also used the DH.4, both over France and over Italy and the Aegean front. The DH.4 was also used for coastal patrols by the RNAS. One, crewed by the pilot Major Egbert Cadbury and Captain Robert Leckie (later Air Vice-Marshal) as gunner, shot down Zeppelin L70 on 5 August 1918. Four RNAS DH.4s were credited with sinking the German U-boat UB 12 on 19 August 1918.
The DH.4 proved a huge success and was often considered the best single-engined bomber of World War I. Even when fully loaded with bombs, with its reliability and impressive performance, the type proved highly popular with its crews. The Airco DH.4 was easy to fly, and especially when fitted with the Rolls-Royce Eagle engine, its speed and altitude performance gave it a good deal of invulnerability to German fighter interception, so that the DH.4 often did not require a fighter escort on missions, a concept furthered by de Havilland in the later Mosquito in World War II.
A drawback of the design was the distance between pilot and observer, as they were separated by the large main fuel tank. This made communication between the crew members difficult, especially in combat with enemy fighters. There was also some controversy (especially in American service) that this placement of the fuel tank was inherently unsafe. In fact, most contemporary aircraft were prone to catching fire in the air. The fire hazard was reduced, however, when the pressurised fuel system was replaced by one using wind-driven fuel pumps late in 1917, although this was not initially adopted by American-built aircraft. The otherwise inferior DH.9 brought the pilot and observer closer together by placing the fuel tank in the usual place, between the pilot and the engine.
Despite its success, numbers in service with the RFC actually started to decline from spring 1918, mainly due to a shortage of engines, and production switched to the DH.9, which turned out to be disappointing, being inferior to the DH.4 in most respects. It was left to the further developed DH.9A, with the American Liberty engine, to satisfactorily replace the DH.4.
When the Independent Air Force was set up in June 1918 to carry out strategic bombing of targets in Germany, the DH.4s of 55 Squadron formed part of it, being used for daylight attacks. 55 Squadron developed tactics of flying in wedge formations, bombing on the leader's command and with the massed defensive fire of the formation deterring attacks by enemy fighters. Despite heavy losses, 55 Squadron continued in operation, the only one of the day bombing squadrons in the Independent Force which did not have to temporarily stand down owing to aircrew losses.
After the Armistice, the RAF formed No. 2 Communication Squadron, equipped with DH.4s to carry important passengers to and from the Paris Peace Conference. Several of the DH.4s used for this purpose were modified with an enclosed cabin for two passengers at the request of Andrew Bonar Law. These aircraft were designated DH.4A, with at least seven being converted for the RAF, and a further nine for civil use.
United States military service
At the time of its entry into the war, the United States Army Air Service lacked any aircraft suitable for front line combat. It therefore procured various aircraft from the British and French, one being the DH.4. As the DH-4, it was manufactured mostly by Dayton-Wright and Fisher Body for service with the United States from 1918, the first American built DH-4 being delivered to France in May 1918, with combat operations commencing in August 1918. The powerplant was a Liberty L-12 of 400 hp (300 kW) and it was fitted with two .30 in (7.62 mm) Marlin machine guns in the nose and two .30 in (7.62 mm) Lewis guns in the rear and could carry 322 lb (146 kg) of bombs. it could also be equipped with various radios like the SCR-68 for artillery spotting missions. The heavier engine reduced performance compared with the Rolls-Royce powered version, but as the "Liberty Plane" it became the US Army Air Service standard general purpose two-seater, and on the whole was fairly popular with its crews.
Aircrew operating the DH-4 were awarded four of the six Medals of Honor awarded to American aviators. First Lieutenant Harold Ernest Goettler and Second Lieutenant Erwin R. Bleckley received posthumous awards after being killed on 12 October 1918 attempting to drop supplies to the Lost Battalion of the 77th Division, cut off by German troops during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive; while Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot and Gunnery Sergeant Robert G. Robinson of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) were awarded the Medal of Honor for beating off attacks from 12 German fighters during a bombing raid over Belgium on 8 October 1918. The type flew with 13 U.S. squadrons by the end of 1918.
Following the end of World War I, America had a large surplus of DH-4s, with the improved DH-4B becoming available, although none had been shipped to France. It was therefore decided that there was no point in returning aircraft across the Atlantic, so those remaining in France, together with other obsolete observation and trainer aircraft, were burned in what became known as the "Billion Dollar Bonfire". With limited funds available to develop and purchase replacements, the remaining DH-4s formed a major part of American air strength for several years, used for many roles, with as many as 60 variants produced. DH-4s were also widely used for experimental flying, being used as engine testbeds and fitted with new wings. They were used for the first trials of air-to-air refueling on 25 June 1923, and one carried out an endurance flight of 37 hours, 15 minutes on 27–28 August, being refueled 16 times and setting 16 new world records for distance, speed and duration. The DH-4 remained in service with the United States Army Air Corps, successor to the United States Army Air Service, until 1932.
DH-4s were also used by the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps, both during World War I and postwar. The Navy and Marine Corps received 51 DH-4s during World War I, followed by 172 DH-4B and DH-4B-1 aircraft postwar and 30 DH-4M-1s with welded steel-tube fuselages (redesignated O2B) in 1925. They remained in service with the Marine Corps until 1929, being used against rebel factions in Nicaragua in 1927, carrying out the first dive-bombing attacks made by U.S. military forces. The U.S. Navy converted some DH-4M-1s into primitive air ambulances that could carry one stretcher casualty in an enclosed area behind the pilot.
Following the end of World War I, DH.4s and 4As were used to operate scheduled passenger services in Europe by such airlines as Aircraft Transport and Travel, Handley Page Transport and the Belgium airline SNETA, G-EAJC of Aircraft Transport and Travel flying the first British commercial passenger service from Hounslow Heath Aerodrome to Paris Le Bourget on 25 August 1919, carrying a reporter from the Evening Standard newspaper and a load of newspapers and other freight. They were used by Aircraft Transport and Travel until it shut down in 1920, while Handley Page Transport and SNETA continued operating the DH.4 until 1921. One aircraft was used by Instone Air Lines until its merger into Imperial Airways in 1924.
DH.4s were also used by the Australian airline QANTAS, flying its first airmail service in 1922. Twelve DH.4s forming part of the Imperial Gift to Canada were used for forestry patrol and survey work, spotting hundreds of forest fires and helping to save millions of dollars worth of timber, with the last example finally being withdrawn in 1927.
The U.S. Post Office also adopted the DH-4 to carry air mail. In 1919, the DH-4B was standardised by the US Post Office, being modified to be flown from the rear cockpit with a 400 lb (180 kg) watertight mail compartment replacing the forward cockpit. The airmail DH-4B were later modified with revised landing gear and an enlarged rudder. DH-4s were used to establish a coast-to-coast, transcontinental airmail service, between San Francisco and New York, a distance of 2,680 mi (4,310 km), involving night flight, the first services starting on 21 August 1924. The DH-4 continued in Post Office service until 1927, when the last airmail routes were passed to private contractors.