Courtney and Scott (Barthelmess and Fairbanks) are two hotshot pilots belonging to "A" Flight of a squadron of the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. The squad takes terrible casualties due to being sent into combat every single day, and the men relieve the stress by drinking. Courtney and Scott think that their CO, Major Brand, is too cautious, but Brand for his part is near breakdown from the stress of having to send men to their deaths on a daily basis.
Brand is relieved of this stress when he is promoted to a staff position, leaving Courtney in charge of the squadron. Courtney, now grounded, winds up in Brand's position, suffering the pressures of having to watch his men die every day. Courtney's friendship with Scott is ruptured when Scott's little brother Donny joins the squadron, driving a wedge between the two. The pressure on the squadron is further increased by the arrival in their sector of famous German ace von Richter and his elite flight wing.
The Dawn Patrol was remade in 1938, in a near-identical version. The remake was directed by Edmund Goulding and starred Errol Flynn as Courtney, David Niven as Scott, and Basil Rathbone as Brand. Max Steiner composed the score. The 1930 film was subsequently retitled Flight Commander on re-release in order to distinguish it from the Flynn film.
Compare Hell's Angels, another 1930 film about RFC pilots fighting the Germans.
- Ace Pilot: Courtney and Scott, who go on a raid by themselves in direct violation of orders and get back alive, although they wreck both planed. Then there's von Richter, the fearsome German pilot they wind up going against. Courtney shoots down von Richter at the climax before he himself gets shot down.
- And the Adventure Continues: If one can consider air combat in The Great War an adventure. The last scene shows Scott in command of the squadron after Courtney is killed. This trope is emphasized when the film suddenly fades to black right in the middle of Courtney's morning briefing to the men.
- Blood from the Mouth: From von Richter to signify that Courtney got him.
- The Chains of Commanding: Both Brand and Courtney are pushed to the brink of collapse by sending their men into the air to die every day. Both are particularly stressed by the constant patrols, which force them to send new flight school graduates straight into combat, which results in a high fatality rate among those new pilots.
- Creator Cameo: Howard Hawks, who was an American pilot in the war, flies a German plane in the movie.
- Dawn Attack: The squadron often has to do these.
- Driving a Desk: Used for some of the aerial combat shots as well as a scene in which Courtney and Scott go off on a drunken spree on a motorcycle. It was around this time that Driving a Desk became a trope. Silent film cameras could and did go just about anywhere, but sound film cameras, due to their bulky size and limited recording ability, were much more limited, necessitating this trope for scenes in a vehicle.
- Fighter-Launching Sequence: It's the daily routine.
- Funny Foreigner: The German pilot, captured alive, who winds up getting hammered with the men of the squad. ("Drinky? Ja!")
- Heroic Sacrifice: The climax involves a near-suicidal mission to bomb a German ammunition depot far behind enemy lines. Scott volunteers, whereupon Courtney gets him drunk and takes the mission for himself. He's shot down and killed on the way back home.
- High-Class Glass: Phillips, aide to Brand and later Courtney who speaks with a plummy RP accent, wears one.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: Brand often throws back drinks after the survivors of his patrols return. Courtney winds up drinking to relieve the stress as well, to the point that Scott notices and urges him to cut back.
- New Meat: Donny, Scott's fresh-faced, wide-eyed, eager little brother, might as well be wearing a sign that says "cannon fodder". Sure enough, he dies on his very first combat flight.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: "von Richter" is pretty obviously inspired by the most famous flying ace of all, Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron.
- Red Shirt: Donny exists in order to die and be a source of conflict between Courtney and Scott.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Hollister never does recover after the death of his buddy, shaking and crying as he drinks at the bar, screaming at the German pilot that the squad captures.
- Time Passes Montage: Superimposed shots of planes flying, soldiers charging, and trench combat are used to demonstrate the time that's passed since Courtney has been given command of the squad.
- Title Drop: A title card (in the 1930 film only) calls the morning flight "The Dawn Patrol".
- War Is Hell: It certainly isn't very glorious, not even aerial combat, which kills men just as quickly.
- Worthy Opponent: A German pilot who is captured alive is treated this way when brought to the squadron headquarters, although Hollister, grieving over the death of his buddy, doesn't feel that way. At the end, Courtney and the German pilot who shot him down salute each other before Courtney goes into a death spiral.
Tropes specific to the 1938 film:
- Comforting Comforter: As Scott goes to sleep on the cot, Courtney having deliberately gotten him drunk so he'll miss the suicide mission, Courtney puts a blanket over him.
- Hangover Sensitivity: Scott wakes up wincing on a morning they have to go out on patrol, after drinking a lot the night before.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: While both films end with Scott giving a briefing to the pilots, the 1930 film has a fadeout. The 1938 film by contrast has Scott actually finish his briefing and say "That's all", right before The End pops up onscreen.