Death Over the Trenches: the BE.2 Part I



The Albatros Scout cruised high over the front line, its young pilot eagerly scanning the drab, churned-up earth beneath, searching for the tell-tale flicker of movement that would betray the presence of an Allied reconnaissance aircraft. It had been several weeks since he had joined the famous Jagdstaffel 2 ‘Boelcke’, and he had yet to score his first victory, a fact that caused him some frustration, surrounded as he was by some of Germany’s top fighter pilots.

Now, on this morning of 27 November 1916, he was to have his chance at last. Just as he was about to go home, he sighted a British biplane, a couple of thousand feet lower down. Diving to the attack, he opened fire and saw his bullets ripping into the biplane’s wings. The aircraft went down in a fast descent, its pilot apparently intent on getting down in one piece before the German shot him out of the sky. It crash-landed in no-man’s land quite close to the British lines. The pilot and observer jumped from the cockpit and ran to the comparative safety of their own trenches. The German pilot circled overhead, raging. Since the biplane had come down outside German territory, there was no way of claiming it as a ‘kill’; the German infantry who had occupied that particular sector had pulled out early that morning, and consequently there would be no witnesses.

Quickly, the young German decided on a drastic course of action. Thottling back, he glided down to land among the shell craters and came to a stop a few yards from the wreck of the British machine. Jumping down, he ran through the clinging mud and scrambled onto the biplane’s splintered wing. He reached into the rear cockpit and pulled the machine-gun from its mounting. Burdened by his trophy, he stumbled back to his aircraft and threw himself into his seat, dragging the machine-gun with him. Mud sprayed up behind the wheels as he opened the throttle. Bullets crackled around him as the Albatros lurched into the air, but miraculously none struck home. That night, the machine-gun was mounted in the officers’ mess of Jagdstaffel 2.

The German pilot was Leutnant Werner Voss, soon to become legendary as the ‘Hussar of Krefeld’, whose score of enemy aircraft destroyed would rise to forty-eight before his death in action in September 1917.

Voss’s first victim, on that day in 1916, was a Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c. It was an aircraft that was easy to fly; it had no vices; and it was inherently stable in flight. In combat, it was a death trap.

In 1909, HM Balloon Factory at Farnborough, which as its name implies had been involved in the production of lighter than air craft, began building aeroplanes. In 1912 the company changed its name to the Royal Aircraft Factory. Its first aircraft product, built in 1911, was the BE.1 (Blériot Experimental) tractor biplane, which was first flown on 1 January 1912. The pilot was 30-year-old Geoffrey de Havilland, who had joined the Balloon Factory in 1910. The rather curious Blériot Experimental designation was a smokescreen to cover up the fact that the aircraft had been designed by de Havilland and to give the impression that it was a repaired Blériottype machine, for at that time the Balloon Factory was authorised to carry out repair work only.

The BE.1, which was built around a Wolseley engine, was quite an innovative design. It was followed by the BE.2, which used the same basic airframe and was the first military machine to be built as such in Britain. The BE.2 was one of the first successful attempts at building a fuselage biplane with a tractor engine driving a four-bladed propeller. The wings were of two-spar structure, supported by two pairs of struts on each side. The fuselage was rectangular in cross-section with curved top decking, the pilot and observer being seated in tandem. The elevator and rudder were of metal construction with fabric covering. The BE.2 was powered by a 70 hp air-cooled Renault engine and, like the BE.1, it was used to carry out a great deal of trials work. Four BE.2s were ordered by Vickers, and the Royal Aircraft Factory was authorised to build another five.

Much of the experimental work with the BE.1/BE.2 involved improving the type’s stability, a characteristic that was to prove its Achilles’ heel; but this was something which, until the BE found itself in a combat situation, no one could have envisaged. The unit that pioneered the BE’s entry into service with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was No. 2 Squadron, one of the RFC’s first heavierthan-air units (No. 1 Squadron being equipped with balloons and airships at this time). The RFC pilots liked the BE, and No. 2 Squadron crews faced a stern test in January 1913, when they were ordered to deploy from their original base at Farnborough to Montrose, on the east coast of Scotland.

An official history of the RFC records:

Five of its officers did the journey in nine days, two of them in BEs and three in Maurice Farmans. They took off on the 17 February, and that evening Lieutenant C.A.H. Longcroft, having been compelled to land at Littlemore, near Oxford, spent the night in the local lunatic asylum. The next stop was Newcastle. Only two of them reached it in the day and these had had to land many times to ask the way. The directions they received were more suitable for land than air travellers, since ‘turnings in the road and well-known public houses are not easy to recognize from the air’. By the 26 February they had all arrived at Montrose, and here a period of strenuous training began. By September they had advanced sufficiently to take part in the Irish Command manoeuvres, flying 400 miles each way to do so with no engine failures.

When the RFC deployed four squadrons and sixty-four aircraft to France on 13 August 1914, a few days after the outbreak of war, two of them (Nos 2 and 4), were equipped entirely with BEs. By this time, new models of the basic design had made their appearance, production having given way to the BE.2a with wings of unequal span; the BE.2b with revised decking around the cockpits and ailerons instead of wing-warping controls; and the BE.2c.

The BE.2c, which appeared in the spring of 1914, differed radically from its predecessors. Its wings had greater stagger and dihedral, but the principal innovation was the addition of ailerons on all four wing sections. These changes further improved the stability of the aircraft, which was enhanced even more by a greatly increased rudder area. The undercarriage was also of a new design and much simpler, dispensing with skids. The wing tips were reshaped, becoming less rounded, and neat cut-outs at the trailing edge of the lower wing roots greatly improved downward visibility. The engine, designated RAF-1a, was a British version of the 70 hp Renault, with the output increased to 90 hp.

The first wartime flight by a BE was made on Wednesday 19th August, when Lieutenant G.W. Mapplebeck of No. 4 Squadron took off from Maubeuge to make a reconnaissance of Gembloux, where enemy cavalry had been reported. He sighted a small group of them, and duly reported the fact back at his base.

Time after time, during the following weeks, the BE proved its worth in the air reconnaissance role. It had a longer range than most of the other types used at that time by the RFC, and consequently could penetrate deeper into enemy territory. On 15 September 1914, for the first time, the RFC made operational use of wireless telegraphy during artillery observation. Two BE.2s of No. 4 Squadron were involved. The pilots were Lieutenants D.S. Lewis and B.T. James, both of whom were later killed.

In March 1915 the British launched an offensive at Neuve Chapelle, an attack based – for the first time in history – on maps prepared solely from intelligence gathered by aerial photographic reconnaissance, much of it undertaken by BEs. As the assault got under way, the RFC launched the first tactical air bombing offensive, intended to delay the progress of enemy reinforcements. Again, the BEs were in the thick of the fighting. Aircraft of Nos 4 and 6 Squadrons attacked the Menin junction and railway stations at Courtrai, Lille, Douai and Don, using 25 lb and 11 lb bombs. In April, BEs of Nos 2, 7 and 8 Squadrons also attacked railway stations during the battle for Ypres. It was during this battle that Lieutenant W.B. Rhodes-Moorhouse of No. 2 Squadron became the first RFC pilot to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Descending to low level to make sure of hitting a target on the line west of Courtrai railway station with his 100 lb bomb, he ran into heavy rifle and machine-gun fire. Despite being wounded three times, he regained his airfield at Merville, but succumbed to his wounds the next day.

The early part of 1915 saw massive strides in the development of the embryo science of air fighting. Right from the start of the conflict, it had been obvious that the machine-gun provided the best means of both attack and defence for the crew of an aircraft; this had already been demonstrated during trials in Britain, France and the United States in the years leading up to the outbreak of hostilities. There were several problems to be overcome, however, before the solution became a practical reality.

First, machine-guns could be fitted only to the sturdier of the types then in service; on other aircraft, the weight penalty was unacceptable. There was also the problem of aiming and firing any sort of gun, as the pilot and observer were surrounded by a considerable wing area, with its attendant struts and bracing wires, and seated either behind or in front of a large and vulnerable wooden propeller. Nevertheless, the RFC and RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) quickly adopted the 27 lb American-designed Lewis gun as standard armament for their observation aircraft, particularly the ‘pusher’ types in which the observer, who sat in front of the pilot, had a large cone of fire upwards, downwards and on either side. In the beginning, the gun mounting was usually devised by the observer to suit himself. The French selected the Hotchkiss, which like the Lewis was air-cooled; a belt-fed weapon, it initially proved too inflexible for the observer to handle and so a drum feed was adopted. The Germans chose the lightweight Parabellum MG 14, a modification of the water-cooled Maxim; this also had a drum magazine.

The BE.2c was the first variant to be armed with a machine-gun, the primary reason being that in the early versions the observer had occupied the front cockpit, from which it would have been impossible to use such a weapon. The reconnaissance biplane now had at least some defence against the German scouts that were now becoming organised into efficient fighting units; but technology was about to come into play that would give the Germans almost total air superiority over the Western Front for months to come. The new development was the synchronised machine-gun.

‘Synchronisation’ meant, quite simply, relating the rate of fire of a machine-gun to the rate of revolution of a propeller, so that the bullets missed the advancing and retreating blades, enabling the gun to fire forwards through the propeller disc – which in turn meant that the whole aircraft could be used as an aiming platform. The device was perfected by Anthony Fokker, the Dutch designer who, having been turned down by the British and the French, was building aircraft for Germany. Fokker designed a simple engine-driven system of cams and pushrods that operated the trigger of a Parabellum machine-gun once during each revolution of the propeller; in effect, the propeller fired the gun. The mechanism was successfully demonstrated on a Fokker M5K monoplane. This aircraft was given the military designation E.I (E stood for Eindecker or monoplane), and so became the first of the Fokker monoplane fighters.

The ‘Fokker Scourge,’ as it came to be known, began on 1 July 1915, when Leutnant Kurt Wintgens of Feldflieger Abteilung (Flying Section) 62, flying the Fokker M5K, shot down a French Morane monoplane. There was no doubt about this claim, but since the Morane fell inside French lines it was not upheld by the German High Command. Meanwhile, the production Fokker E.I had begun to reach the front-line German units in June. The small number of machines available, in the hands of pilots whose names would soon become legendary, began to make their presence felt. Foremost among them were Leutnants Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, both of Feldflieger Abteilung 62. The definitive version of the Fokker Eindecker was the E.III, some of which were armed with twin Spandau machine-guns. Abteilung 62 rearmed with the new type at the end of 1915. The Fokker Eindecker was the first dedicated fighter aircraft to see operational service, and for months it made Allied reconnaissance flights into German territory virtual suicide missions.

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