Air War Over Verdun I




A momentous new factor, which would have perhaps the most far-reaching effects of any tactical decision taken by the Germans during the war, loomed over the Western Front. Field Marshal von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff, making an appreciation of the state of the war at the end of 1915, stated that England (meaning, as usual, “Britain”) was the more important member of the Franco-British alliance. “The history of the English wars against the Netherlands, Spain, France and Napoleon is being repeated. Germany can expect no mercy from this enemy, so long as he still retains the slightest hope of achieving his object.” The imputation to Great Britain of intent to annihilate Germany was as insolent as it was false. Germany was the aggressor and Britain had stepped in merely as a defender.

The British sector of the Front was not easily penetrable by a sustained and ferocious offensive. “In view of our feelings for our arch-enemy in the war that is certainly distressing.” After some more fulmination Falkenhayn continued: “France has almost arrived at the end of her military effort. If her people can be made to understand clearly that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for, breaking point would be reached …”

He concluded that a massive penetration of the French front was not essential. Germany should subject France to such relentless attrition that it would, to quote Liddell Hart, “bleed to death”. To achieve this was simply a matter of choosing the place on which to focus the onslaught: somewhere “for the retention of which the French command,” explained Falkenhayn, “would be compelled to throw in every man they have”. The choice lay between Belfort and Verdun. Verdun was chosen because it threatened German communications, because it could be isolated in a narrow salient, which would cramp its defence; and because it was the gateway through which Attila had led his Huns to attempt the conquest of Gaul in the fifth century.

Germany started preparing for the many battles and long siege of Verdun, which would transform air operations in several ways.

At Verdun experience in the use of fighters accelerated. It was here that the French and German air forces learned lessons which caused them to revise the organisation and tactical use of fighters, thus setting a pattern that the Germans adopted from the French and the British adapted.

The Germans opened the Battle of Verdun on 21st February 1916 with an artillery bombardment on a fifteen-mile front. They used almost their entire air force on the barrage patrols that they had initiated in October. The initial purpose of maintaining these standing patrols over the front line was to drive the French aircraft away. Its basic flaw was in being purely defensive. Only offensive action can dominate any air space. This is true today and was just as true then. For the time being this tactic had considerable effect, because so many escadrilles were still flying slow, poorly armed Moranes, Voisins and Caudrons. It could not bar the way to them all, though.

Barrage patrols constituted another mistake as well. By concentrating so many aircraft on them, the Germans had none to spare for what should have continued to be routine jobs: artillery spotting and reconnaissance. The only other task for which they did use a few was in close support of the ground forces.

The long-drawn-out Battle of Verdun was really a siege punctuated by furious bombardments and infantry assaults. In a siege, it is long-range cannon that are the most valuable weapons to both attacker and defender. With nobody flying artillery observation for the Germans, their big guns were being given target indications only by their captive balloons five miles behind their trench lines, whose view was much more restricted than from an aeroplane. It was counter-battery fire that was most needed and the most difficult to direct without aeroplanes. The French were getting some artillery co-operation machines across the enemy lines, but expensively. They needed to shoot down the balloons. These were defended by Fokkers, supplementing specially positioned flak and heavy machineguns. Their own batteries were handicapped by paucity of artillery observation sorties that managed to penetrate the German barrage patrols. They, too, used balloons, but these were vulnerable to attack by the enemy, despite anti-aircraft protection.

General Pétain, in command of the French forces at Verdun, saw that it was essential to take air superiority away from the enemy. Lieutenant Colonel Bares went to Verdun to organise the necessary arrangements. He increased the establishment in that sector from four escadrilles to sixteen of which six, instead of one, were to be fighters. He put Commandant Tricornot de Rose, at present Chef d’Aviation of the Second Army, in command of the latter. De Rose had the robust personality and appearance of a traditional heavy cavalryman, not least of which was his walrus moustache. He had transferred from the dragoons as far back as 1910 and obtained the first military pilot’s certificate in the French Army. He now formulated the basic doctrine for offensive formation flying when he ordained that fighters must always go out in threes or sixes. Enough Nieuport IIs were available to increase the escadrilles’ establishment, which was raised to twelve aircraft; an equally important measure.

Before the Nieuport Bébé entered service, some of the Morane escadrilles had made names for themselves and their commanders because the best single-seater pilots had been posted to them. The first of these was MS3, under Capitaine Félix Brocard, a fierce-looking man of medium height with a big moustache and a body shaped like a barrel, whose habitual straddle-legged stance and straight look were the quintessence of fighter pilot aggression. The others were MS 12, commanded by Capitaine Tricornot de Rose, and MS 23, Capitaine de Vergette.

Brocard’s escadrille had by now acquired Nieuports and had accordingly become N3. Having already achieved distinction in their Morane days, the pilots had a flying stork silhouetted on each side of their aircraft, to let everyone, friend and enemy, know who they were, and were therefore called “Les Cigognes”. They had been serving with the French Sixth Army and were now transferred to Verdun. The Storks, under Brocard, expanded into a group comprising also N26, N23, N73, N103 and N167.

The Fokker EIII was not without its troubles. All three marks suffered from occasional defects in the synchronising mechanism, which led to many pilots, among them both Boelcke and Immelmann, and Fokker himself, shattering their own propellers more than once. But it was still a deadly machine to fight. Even more formidable was the EIV, which was powered by a 160 h.p. Oberursel motor that gave it 110 m.p.h. It had twin Spandau machineguns. Only a few EIVs had been manufactured as yet, but Boelcke and Immelmann each had one. It was now that the frequency of their kills began to mount rapidly. Immelmann even experimented with three guns, but found the extra weight made the EIV too sluggish.

The Fokker was not the only formidable opponent that the French had to face. Germany, after having trailed behind France in aeroplane design and development for so long, suddenly confronted her with two new single-seaters. The Halberstadt DI had a 100 h.p. Mercedes engine and a speed of 85 m.p.h., the Pfalz had the same performance as the Fokker EIII. There were two new two-seaters, the Roland CIII, with its top speed of 103 m.p.h. and the Rumpler CI, which could attain 105.

De Rose had not yet worked out any tactics for fighting in formation, or issued instructions that this should be attempted; so the French pilots broke formation on meeting the enemy and fought individually. Given the nature of fighter pilots at any time and in those early days in particular, and taking into account the French temperament and the strong individualists that Navarre, Nungesser, Guynemer and others were, nothing else could be expected.

Boelcke and Immelmann continued to patrol singly, while the rest in the German flying units set off and fought in twos and threes. Boelcke, indeed, who found escorting reconnaissance sorties stultifying, was allowed to remove himself from Douai to a forward airstrip seven miles behind the Front, with another pilot and sixteen ground crew. It was a time, he said, of “Alles ganz auf eigene Faust … Everyone on his own fist.” Trenchard would have approved of the sentiment, which expressed the epitome of the offensive spirit.

The first Frenchman to gain distinction at Verdun was Jean Navarre. He was just nineteen when war broke out and he joined the Air Service. His twin brother, Pierre, went into the infantry. The first time Jean Navarre met an enemy aeroplane, he showed the stuff of which his character was made. The German flew alongside and waved. It was a foolish thing to do to a youngster like Navarre: who waved back, then put a rifle to his shoulder and shot at him. Navarre had to take both hands off the controls to do so and his Farman almost stalled, while the German dived away. Deciding that the Farman was a useless platform from which to fire any weapon, he transferred to MS 12 and by April 1915 had made two kills; and was often to be seen stunting over the trenches.

At the beginning of the Verdun siege he joined N 67. On 26th February he took off at dawn, found three unescorted two-seater enemy aircraft and promptly attacked. Two of the Germans fled at once. In the rearmost one, the observer stood and raised his hands in surrender. Navarre escorted it to a French aerodrome. Later the same morning he ran into nine German aeroplanes, picked out one, had a fight with it and shot it down.

As flamboyant as Nungesser, he had a skull and crossbones and red stripes painted on his Nieuport. Nungesser went further. His was decorated with a skull and crossbones, a coffin, two lighted candles and a black heart. After a British pilot fired at him, he lost confidence in the official markings and had an additional V in red, white and blue painted on his upper wing.

Navarre’s favourite tactic was to approach his victim from astern and slightly below, then stand up to aim his Lewis gun. This was extremely foolhardy. The unstable Nieuport could easily have tipped him out. Navarre continued his aerobatics over the French lines and the infantry knew him as “la sentinelle de Verdun”.

Another characteristic that Navarre shared with Nungesser — and many other French, British and German fighter pilots throughout the war — was that they both held their fire until they were very close to the target. This is habitually described as “point-blank range”. It is nothing of the sort. The simplest definition of point blank is the point at which a bullet or shell begins to drop below a straight line between it and the target. Taking into account the speeds and relative positions of pursuer and target, lateral displacement and difference of altitude, plus the effect on a bullet of the wind generated by the aircraft from which it was fired, distance to point blank from the pursuer’s gun could be as much as 600 yards. Nobody fired from such long range. What those who carelessly use the term “point blank” mean is a range of 25 to 50 yards. Point blank could fall somewhere within those limits for a revolver or pistol, but by no means for a machinegun or rifle.

Navarre’s score soon reached seven, when Nungesser had six. On 4th April he shot down three German machines in the course of four patrols, but two of these fell behind enemy lines and could not be confirmed, so he was credited with only one. On 17th June he was leading a patrol of three Nieuports which intercepted three two-seater reconnaissance Rolands and shot them all down. After that, when at 12,000 feet, the Frenchmen spotted another enemy two-seater at 9000 feet and went for it. To draw the enemy’s fire, so that his companions could shoot it down, Navarre swung to one side. The German observer put a bullet through his arm, breaking the bone, and then wounded him in the side. He fainted and before being able to make a crash landing he bled so profusely that he was delirious in hospital for several days and was found to have suffered brain damage from loss of blood. One glass of wine was now enough to intoxicate him. He was withdrawn from operational flying, with a total of twelve confirmed victories.

When his beloved twin, who had transferred from the infantry to the Air Service, was killed, he broke down completely. He did not return to active service until September 1918, and never flew again on operations. After the war he became chief pilot at Morane-Saulnier and had recovered his nerve enough to declare that he would fly through the Arc de Triomphe on the day of the victory parade on Bastille Day, 1919. He did not live to do it. He was practising aerobatics four days before his attempt when his engine cut at low level and his machine dived into the ground.

Nungesser, at the same time as Navarre, was also proving highly destructive to the enemy and incurring severe injuries himself. Lady Caroline Lamb’s diary entry on meeting Byron was equally appropriate to him: “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Nungesser habitually endangered his own life as carelessly as he did his enemies’. He was totally regardless of pain. His reckless style was exemplified in a cheerful understatement: “Before firing my gun, I shut my eyes. When I reopen them, sometimes the Boche is going down, sometimes I am in hospital.” After having had a bad crash in 1915, he spent four months of intensive fighting at Verdun in 1916. In January 1916 he crashed on an air test. He broke both legs; and the control column smashed into his mouth, penetrated his palate and dislocated his jaw. That cost him two months in hospital. When he returned to the Front he had to use crutches, but despite this he got himself into the cockpit and went out looking for a fight. At intervals he had to return to hospital for treatment, and at the same time was acquiring more wounds and injuries. A bullet split his lip open. Crash-landing in no-man’s-land, he dislocated a knee. In another crash landing with his aircraft shot up, it overturned and broke his jaw. By the end of the war he had been injured seventeen times.

At Verdun, the four fighter pilots who excelled all others were Boelcke, Immelmann, Navarre and Nungesser. They were all caught in the same current of passion for their work and swept along by it. In the two Frenchmen, delight in killing the invader predominated. In the two Germans it was absorption in the exquisiteness of their craftsmanship. All possessed an incandescent spirit compounded of dauntless mettle, superabundant aggressiveness and determination to excel.

France assembled her best pilots in virtually segregated units. The British did not approve of this system. In the RFC a squadron’s successes would earn it the admiring adjective “crack”. Such distinction was sought by teamwork and was won by the outstanding quality that its pilots evinced in the course of acquiring this admiration. In l’Aviation Militaire, crack escadrilles were created by posting already outstanding performers to them. The Stork escadrilles had been formed in this way, with a nucleus of leading pre-war pilots. Another that bore the same lustre was N77, “Les Sportifs”, comprising brilliant sportsmen and rich playboys; some of whom were both. One of its members captained France at rugby football, others were international racing drivers, fencers, horsemen.

Among Les Cigognes were the rich, the poor and the middling. Some counted on the money that various commercial firms put up as bonuses. Michelin, who manufactured tyres for aeroplanes as well as Service motor vehicles, paid a bonus for every victory. Guynemer totted up 15,000 francs, which, although his means were modest, he gave to a fund for wounded airmen.

Les Sportifs lived high, wide and handsome. Oozing wealth, they moved their cars, valets, mess waiters and cooks, their expensive cutlery, crockery and linen from one aerodrome to another like a maharaja’s caravan. Their wives and mistresses accompanied them and were installed in the best local hotels.

Both Cigognes and Sportifs were the pets of high society. Invitations to every kind of lavish entertainment was showered on them. Cars would be sent to fetch them as far as Paris for dinners, theatres and dances when the day’s flying was done.

A third colourful agglomeration was formed by the Americans who had joined l’Aviation Militaire. We have already heard of Bert Hall flying for Bulgaria against Turkey; and of Raoul Lufbery who had entered the Service as Pourpe’s mechanic. They were both among this unorthodox galaxy of pilots of varied talent, united by lust for adventure and love of freedom.