A crisis is a turning point and in 1917 there were two. The fourth month of that year has gone down in RFC history as “Bloody April”. In the first week of April Henderson put the aerial situation at the Western Front, and policy regarding it, in perspective with a review and assessment.
“The increased number of casualties in the Field lately are due to several causes. In the first place, the retirement of the Germans over a large section of the front necessitated a great amount of long-distance reconnaissance and of photography. This is always dangerous work, and specially dangerous in this case because of the special efforts made by the Germans to stop it. I understand, however, that the information supplied by the Royal Flying Corps, as to the German movements and the German preparations in front of our Army, have been absolutely complete. This could be ascertained by reference to Sir Douglas Haig.
“Probably, in view of this retirement, the Germans had concentrated a very large proportion of their available forces in front of the British. There has not been nearly so much fighting in the French part of the line, and this may also be due to the fact that the French Air Service has hardly been pulling its weight of late. I was informed at General Headquarters that the information obtained by the French Air Service, with regard to their front, was very incomplete, so much so that a considerable portion of the German line in front of the French had to be photographed by the British Flying Corps.
“There is no doubt that the Germans have produced within the last few months, a considerable number of fast single-seater Scouts, of which the best is the Albatross [sic]. The aeroplanes which we have on our front which are equal to, or better than the Albatross Scout, are two French types — the Spad and the Nieuport — and the English Sopwith triplane: of these we have squadrons in all. Next to them, and still able to hold their own, are the small Sopwiths and the Martinsyde squadrons. Our first-class two-seater machines capable of being used for offensive fighting, are the de Havilland 4 and the Bristol Fighter: there are at the moment 1 squadron of each. The FE2D, with the Rolls-Royce, is a two-seater Fighter, which will not be outclassed for some time: of these there are 3 squadrons. The machines principally used for reconnaissance are Sopwith 1½ strutters: of these there are 3 squadrons. A squadron of SE5 single-seater Fighters, which is believed to be superior to any German machine, is due to leave England this week.
“The delay in producing larger numbers of these fighting machines is due almost entirely to the delays in engine production. We are only now beginning to get British made engines equal to those which the Germans had for the last eighteen months, with the exception of the Rolls-Royce engine, of which the supply has always been limited. The high powered British engines, however, have now reached the production stage, and the quantities delivered are expected to increase week by week, which will enable us to provide for the Expeditionary Force first-class fighting machines in good quantities.
“In addition to long reconnaissance, a very large amount of Artillery observation work is always going on, much more in our Army than in either the French or the German. This certainly adds to our casualty list without inflicting on the enemy proportionate losses in the air. It does, however, enable our Artillery to inflict much more serious losses on the German forces on the ground, and this must be taken into account in considering whether we get sufficient value for the casualties we suffer.
“With regard to the losses inflicted on the Germans, the announcements which are made in the official communiques do not show their full extent; so much of the fighting takes place on the German side of the lines that very often there is no information whatever about the actions of our aeroplanes which are reported missing, but it is known that frequently in these unseen fights serious losses are inflicted on the Germans. The German casualties which are reported in our official communiqués are only those which are seen and vouched for by our Flying Corps in the course of their work, but from time to time fights have been witnessed from the ground in which both German and British aeroplanes fell in German territory. But, considering even the accounts of fighting in the air, the losses on each side are not disproportionate, considering the different employment that is made of the air forces, that is to say that the German aeroplanes are merely employed in trying to bring down our aeroplanes, whereas ours are mainly employed in doing work required by the Army.
“It was noticeable last year that up to the beginning of June there was no marked superiority in the air on either side, and that the losses on each side appeared to be about equal. After that date, in the continuous good weather, our superiority became more and more marked, but our losses did not diminish to any great extent, for the reason that our superiority on the battlefield was only sustained by continuous fighting at a distance behind the German lines.
“If we would consent to adopt the same policy as the Germans, there is no doubt that our casualties in the air could be diminished. Hitherto, when the German has found himself inferior, he has given up reconnaissance entirely, and has confined himself to defensive fighting on his own ground, but if we were now to follow these tactics the effect on the Army generally would be most serious; we would be able to show an admirable balance sheet of casualties in the air, but the Germans would have information of our movements, and we would have none of their movements; they would have observation for their guns, and our gunners would be blind. Such a policy at this period would be disastrous. The casualties must be faced.”
However much one admires Henderson, this clumsily phrased, execrably punctuated and often ungrammatical effusion compares poorly with the correct and usually elegant style in which senior French, Italian and German officers wrote.
The content has its errors too: neither the Martinsyde nor the FE2D was a match for the Albatros.
It would have been interesting if Henderson had written another report to the CIGS four weeks later to explain the calamity that his optimistic purview had not foreseen.
A massive attack by the British ground forces, the Battle of Arras, was planned to begin on the 9th April. As a prelude, the RFC opened an air offensive on the 4th. The intention was to drive the Luftstreitkräfte out of the battle area, so that contact patrol and artillery co-operation squadrons would be unmolested. In numbers, the British were greater. There were 41 squadrons in France, comprising 754 aircraft. Of these, 25 squadrons, numbering 365 serviceable aeroplanes out of a strength of 465, were on the First and Third Armies’ front: opposed by 195 enemy aeroplanes, of which about half were fighters.
Both the Allies and the Germans had been learning since the year began that it was not numerical superiority that decided air battles: it was the performance of the aircraft. This was chasteningly demonstrated now. Between 4th and 8th April, seventy-five British machines fell. Nineteen lives were lost, thirteen aircrew were wounded and seventy-three went missing. At the same time hasty training of pilots, who were not fully competent when they arrived at the Front, resulted in the wrecking of fifty-six machines in accidents. These new pilots averaged only 171 flying hours, a mere ten solo, and had no experience of the types they were to fly on operations.
The statistics and Combat Reports make ugly reading. A typical disaster occurred on the 6th, when a whole formation of five DH2s of 57 Squadron on offensive patrol was shot down. A week later, when four RE8s (“Harry Tates”: he was a famous comedian) were ludicrously supposed to be escorting two others, they met Richthofen’s Jasta. He helped himself to one and his companions shot down the rest. Three days after that, four Albatroses shot down four out of six Nieuports. The enormity of sending the RE8 to the Front in late 1916 cannot be excused by a plea of necessity. It was designed on pre-1914 principles and was so slow and unmanoeuvrable that the observer was instructed not to stand and look over his pilot’s head when about to land: because his added wind resistance would tip the flying — just about — machine out of the sky and kill or cripple them both.
The Harry Tate was Richthofen’s 41st victory, which took him past Boelcke’s record. Later the same day he added another, a BE2C. Both were as cheap as if a villain armed with a cosh had crept up on two old ladies in a dark alley and felled them.
The Germans had taken advantage of the four months’ respite since the Somme battles to form and train new Jastas, to man them with their best pilots and to equip them with the finest fighter aircraft in the world. But these measures alone did not account for their high success rate. The British made it easier for them by continuing to fly creaking old BE2C and other obsolescent types. These, beating into the strong headwinds of a delayed spring — it snowed that Easter — were like sitting duck to a poacher with a double-barrelled twelve-bore. Moreover, when these travesties of what a contemporary aeroplane should have been were sent pottering off about their lawful occasions they had to be wastefully escorted by an equal number of FE2B or D so-called fighters and given a top cover of the same number of Pups: which did at least stand some chance against the Albatros DIII and Halberstadt; but needed to operate in greater strength to be fully effective. Whatever type or quantity of really good fighters the RFC might have had, the rate at which Trenchard was killing off pilots, including many of the most experienced, meant that there would not have been enough first-class men to fly them. Early in the year, he had forbidden squadron commanders to cross enemy lines. The best ones ignored the order as often as they could. In all, his policy of showing aggression at any cost did for roughly forty per cent of his pilots and observers. Not only offensive patrols and reconnaissance sorties went far behind enemy lines, but also long-range bombing raids.
To complement the British offensive, the French opened theirs on 16th April, on the Aisne. Commandant du Peuty imposed the same demands on l’Aviation Militaire. “Your task is to seek out, fight and destroy enemy aircraft,” he directed; and “Victory in the air must precede victory on land.”
They justified their policy by reasoning that the intrusion of their aircraft deep in enemy territory unsettled the populace, kept fighters tied up far from the Front, and occupied the attention of anti-aircraft batteries that could otherwise have moved up to the battle zone.
There was mutual esteem as well as collaboration. On l0th March du Peuty wrote to Trenchard:
“I do not know how to express to you all the admiration I feel, and the whole French Flying Service feels, for the British Flying Corps.
“These results have not only contributed to the great success of your armies, but in close co-operation with our own efforts they have relieved us of a large part of the German aviation.
“I hope to be able to teach what is left of the German aviation that the French intend to follow the same principles in the same manner. I should be grateful if you would let those under your orders know the admiration which the French Flying Service feels for them, as well as the feeling of comradeship they have for them.”
He was short of the means to achieve his aspirations. Inefficient staff work had provided him with a force of only four Groupes, a total establishment of 200 aircraft. He had only 131 aeroplanes when the Battle of the Aisne began, and 151, the maximum, five days later. Among these the Spad S7 was competent to challenge the enemy fighters, but there were still too many Voisin and Farman pushers.
The Germans facing the French kept six standing patrols airborne: four at 6000 to 8000 feet and two at any height between 12,000 and 20,000 feet. The lower ones effectively turned away contact and artillery-spotting flights, while the high cover ignored the offensive patrols: which then merely wasted petrol, of which the French were suffering a dearth.
For the British fighters, trench strafing became increasingly frequent as co-operation with the artillery produced ever swifter results. The gunners were able so soon to get onto the targets — usually enemy batteries — given to them from the air, that the pilots were free to turn their attention to attacking the infantry.
The Germans had a two-seater, the AEG C IV, carrying a 200-pound bombload, with an armoured belly and armed with a Spandau and a Parabellum, which was excellent for this purpose. Two Staffeln of a new type, the Schlachtstaffel — battle squadron — were formed and equipped with these.
The British also had a new two-seater, for a totally different purpose, in which high hope was invested: the Bristol Fighter. This was a big strong machine over twenty-six feet long, with a wingspan of nearly forty feet. The crew sat closely back-to-back in a shared cockpit. There was a Vickers synchronised with the propeller for the pilot, and a Lewis, mounted on a Scarff ring for the observer to protect flanks and rear. The first series had a top speed of 111 m.p.h. at 10,000 feet, a height it could reach in 13 minutes.
The first Brisfit squadron, No. 48, arrived in France in late March, initially equipped with only six. Had there been time for the crews thoroughly to familiarise themselves with the aeroplane before taking it into action, its impact on the enemy would have been as startling and gratifying as the RFC expected. Tragically, instead of raising the Corps’s morale and lowering the enemy’s, the reverse happened. On 5th April —much too soon — a flight commander, Captain Leefe Robinson, who had won a VC for shooting down a Zeppelin near London, had to lead all six on their first patrol.
Five Albatros DIIIs, led by Richthofen, intercepted them.
The Brisfit pilots, following the standard two-seater routine, turned away from the enemy and took no evasive action, trying to give their observers a stable gun platform. Nobody had had time to find out that the excellently manoeuvrable Bristol Fighter could be thrown about like a single-seater; and that it was the pilot’s heavy Vickers machinegun that should be used as the main weapon; with the movable and lighter Lewis as a means of defence, not attack.
As a consequence of this staid old-fashioned manoeuvre, Richthofen was able to shoot two Bristols down while his wing men took out two more. Of the two that got away, one was badly damaged. Leefe Robinson had gone down and was taken prisoner.
Interviewed by the press, Richthofen described the Bristol Fighter with contempt. This was no service to his comrades, who thenceforth attacked it over-confidently. The British pilots and gunners quickly learned how to fight their aircraft effectively. The manufacturers progressively gave it a more powerful engine, until its speed reached 125 m.p.h. In a very short time it became enemy doctrine never to attack three or more Brisfits, even when outnumbering them two or three to one. In order to tempt them to fight, Bristol Fighters used to go out in pairs and singly; but the German’s remained reluctant. This remarkable aeroplane, perhaps the best and most versatile of the war, remained in RAF service until 1932.
There was another new fighter of which the British had great expectations: the Royal Aircraft Factory’s SE5. With it came a change of attitude: emulating the French and Germans, the RFC began to concentrate its best fighter pilots in certain squadrons. No. 56 was the first. Its commander, Major R. G. Blomfield, had the sense of style that consorts well with membership of a select community. He valued the Epicurean niceties of life, even in wartime. While the squadron was spending six weeks at London Colney, taking delivery of its aeroplanes and working up to operational standard, he formed an orchestra from the rank and file of his squadron, to play in the officers’ mess every evening. Among his pilots was Ball, who had been sent home to instruct towards the end of 1916.
Now very much the seasoned campaigner, Ball expressed forthright views on his craft. The SE5 had a top speed of 120 m.p.h. at 6500 feet and was a strong but light machine, with a 400-round Vickers firing through the propeller and a Lewis on the upper wing, provided with 4 double drums of 97 rounds. Its two and a half hours’ endurance was one hour better than the Albatros’s, which meant that its pilots had ample time to stay at maximum height waiting to surprise enemy fighters. Not all pilots took to it immediately. The first objection was to the windscreen, which they said obstructed their view and became blurred by scratches and oil. The Lewis gun, despite its Foster mounting, was inordinately difficult to reload on account of wind resistance.
In a letter, Ball denounced it as “a dud” and alleged, exaggeratedly, that its speed was only about half a Nieuport’s. This sounds like adolescent petulance rather than a rational assessment. In fact the SE5 was 15 m.p.h. faster than the Nieuport 17. He told his parents he was “making the best of a bad job” by having the Lewis gun taken off to save weight and the windscreen lowered to cut down wind resistance. Some pilots had the windscreen removed. They were all given a free hand about modifications: “But it is a rotten machine.”
Familiarisation changed his, and others’, opinion. Gunnery practice showed that it was a steady platform from which to shoot accurately. It was nimble in aerobatics. Among battle-hardened young men of eighteen and nineteen, or in their very early twenties, who owed their lives to their above-average skill as pilots as well as to their marksmanship, competitiveness was rife. Someone decided that he would make his landing more interesting and smoother if he touched down on a hangar roof instead of the ground and rolled down it onto the airfield. Soon they were all doing it. When they took off to fly to France on 7th April they went as masters of what could be the most formidable single-seater at the Front. Its imperfections were the erratic Constantinescu-Colley synchronisation gear for the Vickers gun and the temperamental Hispano-Suiza engine.