Early British WWI Air Power II


In Britain, designers continued to work on ever larger two and multi-seater designs. The Factory’s ingenious single-engine two-seater F.E.6 proved impractical and had to be abandoned, but there was confidence the extra power of twin or multi-engine designs ought to provide the necessary speed. The Factory was working on their F.E.4, F.E.5 and F.E.7, and Vickers had responded to the 1914 cannon-fighter requirement with their twin-engine E.F.B.7 (Experimental Fighting Biplane 7).

Meanwhile, a Frenchman, Roland Garros, had solved the aiming problem by fixing his machine gun to fire directly ahead through the propeller arc with metal deflectors on the propeller blades to prevent damage. The system was used operationally for the first time in April 1915, and in the first eighteen days of April, Garros, flying alone in a two-seater Morane-Saulnier Parasol, claimed no less than three enemy aircraft destroyed. The French adopted the system as standard armament on the monoplane Morane-Saulnier N single-seater fighter and the RFC in France were sufficiently impressed to order three Morane-Saulnier Ns for trials.

Word of the success of the Morane deflector had also reached the War Office, and on 27 June, RFC HQ in France was asked to arrange for an example to be sent to Britain for testing. Henderson also seemed anxious to get trials going, asking the War Office to use the ‘S.E.4 or some other scout’ to measure the loss in performance the deflectors on the propeller caused. The S.E.4 had crashed in August 1914, but its successor, the entirely new S.E.4a, was an equally suitable candidate for the deflector system, but the trials never took place. Mysteriously, three different sets of the French deflectors all managed to go missing crossing the Channel, and no attempt was made to reproduce what was fundamentally a very simple idea. A moveable gun was still thought to be the better approach.

The Germans were showing far more interest in the French idea. On 18 April, Garros had been shot down in his specially modified Parasol and the deflector system fell into German hands. It was not so much the deflector that interested his captors—it was the fixed gun firing directly ahead that was the crucial revelation. German engineers were working on a synchronised gun that did not need deflectors, but without much urgency as there were doubts it would be possible to aim a fixed weapon. The French had now proven it was possible and development of the synchronisation system was given maximum priority. In July, a synchronised gun fitted to a Fokker E1 monoplane shot down its first victim, ironically a French two-seater Morane-Saulnier Parasol. The Germans had gone from no fixed guns to a fixed forward-firing synchronised gun in one step. Even so, the scale of the breakthrough was still not appreciated. The German air force still saw their new armed C-class two-seater reconnaissance planes as their main fighter.

On the British side there were glimpses of what single-seaters might achieve. In June 1915, Lanoe George Hawker was assigned one of the few available Bristol Scouts and fitted it with a Lewis machine gun to fire at an angle outwards past the propeller. Hawker was, by all accounts, a brilliant marksman, and he needed to be to hit anything with the arrangement. He managed to claim a victory on 20 June, and on 25 July, he was involved in three separate combats in a single sortie, claiming three victories and earning the Victoria Cross.

Meanwhile, even before the Fokker arrived, the latest German planes, particularly the Aviatik C-Class two-seaters, were causing enough problems for RFC pilots. German planes seemed capable of flying faster and higher than anything the RFC had, and German pilots were becoming noticeably more confident and aggressive. Twenty-six encounters with enemy planes in May became thirty-two in June and forty-seven in July. In the future, information would have to be fought for. The ‘real struggle for air supremacy’ was finally beginning, warned Brooke-Popham, Sykes’ successor at RFC HQ, and losing it might have serious consequences. The RFC needed an air superiority fighter.

The solution the Directorate came up did not involve a tractor scout like the S.E.4a or the French deflector system. It was not even originally intended primarily as a fighting plane. It was the brainchild of de Havilland, who had left the Factory and become chief designer at Airco, the ‘Aircraft (Manufacturing) Company’. His first design was the two-seater D.H.1 pusher, which was essentially a smaller and lighter version of his F.E.2. This was followed by an even smaller single-seater version, the D.H.2, which flew in July 1915. It was not in response to any direct requirement from the RFC command in France, nor was it an attempt to revolutionise the fighting plane. It was simply intended to fill the high-speed reconnaissance scout role. For the specialist fighting role, de Havilland was working on his twin-engine three-seater D.H.3, which was much more in line with official thinking on what fighting planes should look like, and was indeed effectively no more than a smaller version of the F.E.4. The armament of the single-seater D.H.2 was very much an afterthought. The prototype had a machine gun mounted on the side of the cockpit, which the pilot could aim sideways as he was flying. There was no intention at this stage of having a fixed forward-firing gun. Although handicapped by its pusher configuration, thanks to its 100-hp engine, it was as fast as the Bristol Scout.

The prototype was sent to France in July 1915 for operational trials. The 2nd Wing had been encountering a high number of enemy aircraft, so it was decided that Captain Maxwell Pike of No. 5 Squadron should try out the ‘armed scout’. Pike was very impressed. No German plane could equal the de Havilland design for speed and climbing power he proclaimed, and the view from the cockpit was better than any plane he had previously flown. De Havilland was to fly out personally to France to discuss with Pike any improvements that might be required, but their meeting never happened. On 9 August, Pike was engaging a German reconnaissance plane near Ypres when he was hit in the head by defensive fire. He managed to land, but died soon after. The Germans had captured an intact example of the RFC’s latest combat plane before it had even gone into production. Significantly, the Germans did not rush to copy the single-seater pusher format. Garros’ Morane-Saulnier Parasol had been a much more interesting find. De Havilland may never have got to hear Pike’s suggested improvements, but the prototype had done enough to prove its worth and the ‘armed scout’ was ordered into production, more now for its air combat qualities than scouting capabilities. On the production version, the gun was mounted centrally in the nose, but it was still moveable. Following the same formula, the Royal Aircraft Factory began work on the F.E.8 pusher, their first ‘Fighting Experimental’ single-seater, also with a moveable gun.

Meanwhile, Henderson and his wing commanders were meeting to discuss the future types they wanted developed for their squadrons. Although the Fokker had not yet appeared on the British front, RFC commanders were well aware of the success the single-seater tractor was having further south against the French, but this did not seem to influence their thinking. The French deflector system was discussed and rejected partly because of the reported 10 mph speed handicap it imposed, although this was no more than the handicap imposed by the pusher layout. Moveable guns were preferred to fixed guns, either forward firing with a pusher or backwards with a tractor. Only Burke, commander of the 2nd Wing where the D.H.2 had been tested, was in favour of a single-seater, but it had to be a pusher—no single-seater tractors were required. Unhampered field of fire, stability and endurance were the most sought after qualities. The two-seater fighters were expected to have an endurance of four hours and the single-seater six hours. The endurance requirements were daunting. The D.H.2 could not even manage three hours and Brancker feared the requirements could only be met by large twin-engine planes. Everything was pointing to the need for larger combat planes. The RFC requirements justified the work the Factory and companies like Vickers and Airco were doing on twin-engine fighting planes. The Vickers E.F.B.7 had just flown and a dozen were ordered, while work also began on the smaller and lighter twin-engine E.F.B.8 armed with a machine gun instead of a cannon.

The Bristol team under Frank Barnwell, responsible for the single-seater Bristol Scout, was also set to work on a twin-engine fighter. Barnwell had enlisted in the RFC at the outbreak of war and was about to depart for France with No. 12 Squadron when he was ordered back to Bristol to help develop the planes Henderson and his commanders wanted. The design he came up with, the Bristol Twin Tractor A (TTA), was a twin-engine fighting machine with a gunner in the nose armed with two machine guns and the pilot behind expected to operate a rearward-firing gun. Ironically, design of this plane went ahead while unarmed Bristol Scouts were rolling off the adjacent production lines.

Three days before RFC commanders decided no single-seater tractors were required, a B.E.2c of No. 2 Squadron reported an inconclusive combat with a German single-seater tractor monoplane. The Fokker E1 had arrived on the British front. The Germans, however, had still not realised the significance of their breakthrough and like the British, they still believed the two-seater was the more effective combat plane. The Fokkers were spread around the German reconnaissance squadrons for escort duties. On the British side, the significance of the Fokker E series was initially lost in the generally more aggressive approach all German aircraft were displaying. Losses in air combat were scarcely frequent occurrences—just six planes were lost in July and this dropped to only three in August. Despite these relatively light casualties, the RFC felt it was on the defensive.

The threat was considered sufficient for escorts to be organised for reconnaissance planes. These would be any plane capable of carrying a gun that was available, often another two-seater reconnaissance plane. However, the high speeds of the tractor scouts made them particularly attractive escorts, despite the problems arming them. Their extra speed allowed them to manoeuvre around the plane they were escorting, chasing off aggressors if required without necessarily falling hopelessly behind. It became standard to attach one or two scouts to each squadron specifically for escort duties just as the German air force was doing with its Fokkers. It provided a useful role for the handful of Bristol Scouts that were trickling across the Channel. They were still arriving unarmed and all modifications necessary to enable them to carry a weapon had to be made by the squadrons in the field.

To add to the RFC’s problems, as well as being technically outclassed by its opponents, it was also finding itself seriously under strength for the wide variety of tasks it was now expected to perform. When the war broke out, there had been four squadrons out of a planned eight to support the four divisions sent to France, and they had been used primarily for reconnaissance. The air force was now expected to co-operate with artillery, monitor the progress of advancing friendly forces, photograph enemy lines, bomb and increasingly engage in air combat, and the recent need for escorts was a further strain on resources. Yet in the summer of 1915, while the Army had expanded to thirty divisions, there were still only eleven RFC squadrons available.

Expanding Britain’s small pre-war aircraft industry inevitably took time. The training programme also needed time to adjust. Initially, many of the pilots the schools were turning out had to be used as instructors to meet the huge numbers of pilots the future air force would require. Even though personnel and material losses were still relatively light after a year of war, little progress had been made in increasing front line strength. As Sykes had pointed out, it did not help that Henderson, the Director of Military Aeronautics, was in France commanding the RFC instead of organising expansion in London. His junior second-in-command, Brancker, complained he was at a severe disadvantage when it came to competing for the available resources with other departments, both inside and outside the War Office. If Henderson wanted a more rapid expansion of the RFC, he had to return to London and take up his director’s post full-time. Henderson was forced to bow to the logic of Brancker’s arguments. In August 1915, Henderson surrendered command of the RFC and returned to London. There was never any doubt who would replace Henderson at St Omer. Hugh Montague Trenchard was waiting to fulfil his destiny.

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