Close Quarters, by Russell Smith (SPAD XIII & Fokker DVII)
Air superiority enabled the French to resist the attacks of late May and early June, but the sheer effort of maintaining their position was taking an enormous toll of men and machines. ‘Most of our victories came during 1918 but we also suffered heavy losses,’ admitted Paul Waddington (SPA154). ‘We enjoyed clear air superiority over the Germans from late spring onwards. It was hugely important. It gave us a lot of confidence, enabling us to attack on favourable terms with the minimum of risk. Still, we suffered almost daily losses. A fighter group of four squadrons contained around sixty to eighty pilots, all of them acquainted with each other, and at least five to ten were killed every month.’ Yet Gabriel Pallier (SPA15) was enjoying himself too much to worry. ‘I loved being part of the squadron,’ he recalled. ‘The camaraderie was extraordinary. The best moment was the day the Germans cut and ran. We felt ourselves kings of the air. In 1918 the Germans were refusing combat. We were cocky. We thought we were conquerors. Risk? What risk? The squadron had a complement of eighteen [which] was replaced twice over. [But] I was lucky. I had the insouciance of youth. I was having a whale of a time.’
New squadrons were created throughout 1918, normally by drafting up to half the strength from an existing squadron or squadrons and filling the gaps with men taken from the depots. SPA164, part of GC21, was formed around a core of experienced pilots at Somme-Vesles in September 1918. All five had transferred from other squadrons within GC21: the CO, Lieutenant Henri Barancy, and pilots Sous-lieutenant Marcel Robert and Sergeant Charles Vauquelin from SPA124, Sous-lieutenant Paul Barbreau from SPA154, and Russell McCormick from the US Aviation Service. Two more pilots were drawn from the pool at the GDE, but eleven were straight out of flying school: the oldest was 30-year-old Sous-lieutenant Marcel Borne, a pre-war cavalryman who had been recalled to serve in transport before transferring to aviation in 1915; the youngest, 20-year-old Corporal Simon Heiné, was part of the class of 1918. ‘[The squadron] was composed almost entirely of young chaps straight from the schools,’ recalled Robert, ‘so we had to finish off their training, teach them to shoot, drill them in formation flying and familiarize them with the sector. And until we could throw them into battle without too much risk we had to think twice about involving them in combat…. The weather in September 1918 was particularly bad and the end of the war was nigh, which explains the lack of dogfights. We registered some probable victories but none confirmed. By the time of the armistice, SPA164 had suffered only one loss – a success in itself.’ That loss was the unfortunate Heiné, shot down between Condélès-Autry and Cernais-en-Dernois on 30 September 1918, probably by Vizefeldwebel Alfons Nagler of Jasta 81.
But SPA159 – formed around a draft from N90 at Malzéville in January 1918, and later part of GC20 – met a very different fate. Only Captain Albert Roper, the CO, and Sous-lieutenant Victor Esperon du Tremblay had any recent experience; the rest of the pilots had come straight from the pool. In May 1918, just as the German Aisne offensive was in full swing, the squadron moved to Villeseneux, where it was pitted against the Jasta aces of JG1, von Richthofen’s old unit. On 30 May Roper was seriously wounded. On 9 June Sergeant Adrien Villard was shot down and killed, as was the new CO, Lieutenant Jean Dehesdin, only three days after taking command. Two days later Sous-lieutenant du Tremblay and Sous-lieutenant Pierre Cramoisy were killed, and Sergeant Élie Le Roy wounded; on 28 June Lieutenant Maurice Patret, Sergeant Pierre Lafargue, Sergeant Frantz Divoy and Corporal Camille Javet were all killed; and on 20 July the new CO, Lieutenant Georges Mazimann, formerly of SPA57, was shot down and killed over Soissons.
Without a single victory to its name, SPA159 had lost nine men killed and two wounded, including three COs, inside two months – an unenviable assignment for the next CO, Captain Henri Hay de Slade (SPA86), and his deputy, Sous-lieutenant Louis Risacher (SPA3). Risacher’s transfer was nothing unusual. ‘After racking up a certain number of victories you were posted to squadrons that might lack a bit of “go”,’ said Paul Waddington (SPA154). ‘Capable pilots were drafted in to improve performance.’
‘I was the only officer apart from my fine comrade, Captain Hay de Slade,’ recalled the sous-lieutenant. ‘The rest of the unit were all novices who didn’t have a clue. I had to teach them everything. Absolutely everything.’ Sharing the instruction work, Hay de Slade began by painting bold red stripes down the side of his SPAD so his pilots could recognize him easily in the air. ‘I restored their self-confidence and taught them how to shoot down Boches again,’ he maintained. ‘How did I do it? First I went up on patrol with each pilot in turn. “We’re going for a jaunt along the front,” I said. “We’ll run across some Boches. I’ll show you what to do. Take no action yourself and don’t fire your machine gun.” That was all it needed. I showed them the Boches weren’t the ogres of their imagination and that all you had to do was manoeuvre. When you came out of your manoeuvre you were in combat. They were so badly scarred by their previous experience they thought they’d had it whenever they spotted a Boche.’
Certain pupils learned their lesson only too well. On 18 October Hay de Slade took one of his novice pilots over the front: ‘This crackpot spotted five or six Fokker D.VIIs below us. I’d seen them too. We weren’t in any position to attack, but he dived on them immediately. I could do nothing but follow and watch his back. I dived to help him out, landing myself with all the Boches on my tail instead. They sniped at me for five to ten minutes. Suddenly a SPAD appeared, firing. The Germans saw him too. One of them passed to my left, followed by the SPAD, which fired and tore him to shreds. It was Claude Haegelen of SPA100. Simultaneously a second SPAD – I knew he was American from his roundels – came hurtling towards another of the Germans and shot him down too. “God bless America,” I cried, picking up speed in my old SPAD and catching a third Fokker D.VII right at the top of a loop. [The pilot] turned and looked at me, then his plane broke up and crashed. The others all made a run for it.’
Hay de Slade shot down six aircraft and two balloons during his time with SPA159, taking his final total to nineteen. Despite his individual tally, and his success with the squadron’s fledglings, his superiors were hard to impress: ‘This officer is brilliant in action but less than satisfactory in command,’ read a post-war personnel report. ‘He should be given a post befitting his particular talents.’ Nevertheless Hay de Slade remained with the post-war Armée de l’Air, eventually retiring as a colonel.
On 15 July the Germans launched yet another offensive, this time around Reims. East of the city the French halted the offensive on the opening day, but to the west the Germans fared rather better, establishing a bridgehead on either side of the river at Dormans. The fighters of the Air Division were ordered to clear the skies of German fighters and balloons, while the bombers attacked the enemy on the ground, in particular the makeshift bridges thrown up around the town. Defending the crossing at Châtillon-sur-Marne, the troops of 317th Infantry were virtually cut off in the park and chateau at Vandières. Despite a pioneering attempt at large-scale aerial resupply – 250 tins of meat, 200 loaves and a supply of biscuits were dropped on 17 July, and the same again, with extra ammunition, the following day – the remaining handful of men were forced to withdraw. By then, however, the German advance had stalled and the French went on to the counter-attack.
‘I’ve been feeling really tired recently,’ said Sous-lieutenant Antoine Cordonnier (SPA15), ‘but resuming the offensive has given me fresh energy.’ Just as well, for another huge effort was demanded of the Air Division, and Cordonnier soon found himself facing eight German fighters. ‘Around 10.00 am I was at 3,000 metres over enemy lines when I spotted eight little German monoplane fighters attacking four French biplanes. Two other pilots were following me, so I signalled the attack and hurled myself between the Fokkers and the poor biplanes. The [Fokkers] abandoned their prey and the spotters made for home. But that still left the three of us grappling with eight Boche monoplanes 8 kilometres behind enemy lines. We continued fighting all the same. We tried to get above them, but more Boches arrived to bar the way. One of my comrades was shot down in front of me. While he was falling, my other colleague pulled off an incredible manoeuvre to dodge the fire coming his way. They’d separated us, leaving me alone against five Boches, plus another pair who had put themselves between me and the French lines to block my retreat. I was in a real pickle [but] … instead of trying to defend myself, I attacked. I dived on my nearest pursuer. A short burst, a few rounds and my adversary went down in flames. The others seemed to hesitate briefly. Taking advantage of their momentary confusion, I pushed my engine [to the limit] and turned my plane towards our lines. A frantic five-minute chase and the Boches flew off.’
Cordonnier’s victory was never confirmed, perhaps because the combat took place too far behind German lines to be spotted by French observers. And less than a fortnight later, he too was dead. On 28 July he failed to return from a patrol over Arcy-Sainte-Restitue, probably the victim of Leutnant Erich Löwenhardt of Jasta 10.
Throughout August and September 1918 the Mixed Brigades continued their attacks. Even after four years of conflict the squadrons were still at risk from friendly fire. ‘Target only those planes clearly marked with crosses,’ ground troops were urgently reminded. The orders for the counter-offensive had also reauthorized the fighter and bomber groups to harass the retreating Germans, licensing them ‘to launch an all-out assault as soon as enemy troops can be seen clearly withdrawing across a broad front’. During the battle of Le Santerre on 11 August, for example, 133 bombers from de Goÿs’ Brigade shot down six enemy fighters and dropped 24.7 tonnes of explosives on the villages of Guiscard and Beaurains-lès-Noyon alone.
After dropping their bombs, many pilots turned for home without waiting to see if they hit the target. ‘Once we’d played our prank, our fear that the coppers would catch us far outweighed our curiosity,’ claimed André Duvau (BR29). ‘We looked right, left, up, down, front and rear for any approaching enemy fighters. We were fair game. The engine drowned out any noise, so we could only make a visual identification … you had to look, look and look again and you were still in danger of being taken by surprise.’
Ideally, the Breguets of the day bomber squadrons would receive dual protection: top cover from SPADs, using their superior speed and manoeuvrability to counter the enemy fighters, plus close support from the Caudron R.11, which was capable of accompanying the bombers all the way to the target, and whose five machine guns with their overlapping fields of fire offered considerable firepower without any need to manoeuvre. However, the SPADs remained limited in range, while the full entry into service of the R.11, completed in prototype in 1916, had been delayed by production difficulties, with only six squadrons formed by November 1918. Consequently, the Breguets were often forced to fend for themselves – and without full protection they remained vulnerable.