1916 Somme Air War I

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The Somme Offensive was the crucible in whose heat the RFC and the Luftstreitkräfte found their definitive shapes. The series of actions launched by the Allies in an attempt to break through the German lines called for maximum effort by the RFC and Aviation Militaire; which in turn put pressure on the Luftstreitkräfte to exert itself to the utmost. From the outset air activity was greater than at Verdun. The British put 185 aeroplanes into the battle; the French, 200. The long preparatory bombardment, which lasted a whole week, gave the enemy ample warning; they mustered 130 aeroplanes to try to control the air space.

The Allies, then, began with an advantage; which, even before the artillery barrage opened on 1st July, was made all the greater by the removal of their two most formidable opponents: one permanently, the other temporarily. In April, Immelmann, known by now as “The Eagle of Lille”, with thirteen kills to his credit, had been granted a regular commission. His brother officers celebrated the event by hiring a band to play at dinner in their mess. Hundreds of troops gathered on the road to listen and to cheer the hero. The Crown Prince of Saxony had decorated him with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of St Heinrich, which, being a Saxon, Immelmann rated higher than the Pour le Mérite, a Prussian order.

He was still as unsophisticated as when he joined the Service. He wrote to his mother: “Now I am a full lieutenant and all of a sudden one of the senior comrades. It has been a quick business. I think my career is unparalleled. Only a year ago I was an acting officer without any distinction … and today!!”

On 18th June, he took off to attack an FE2B of 25 Squadron which had crossed the German lines, flown by Second Lieutenant McCubbin with Corporal Waller as observer. After his first diving pass, Immelmann zoomed into the half-loop that was the first phase of the turn he had invented. As he was about to roll upright at the top, Corporal Waller fired at him. The Fokker broke in two and fell to the ground.

The RFC awarded Waller the kill. The Germans insisted that Immelmann had shot off his own propeller. They said his gun was not synchronised. It had been fitted just before he took off and a new propeller had been bolted on; in the wrong position, they claimed: there had not been time to ensure that the two were in harmony. The matter has never been resolved. A 25 Squadron pilot took the risk of flying over the enemy airfield at fifty feet to drop a wreath “To a gallant and chivalrous opponent”.

It was a great compliment to the Vickers FB5, the Gunbus, that in the enemy records the encounter was entered as having been with “a Vickers”. So impressed were the Germans with the Gunbus that they used to refer to the DH2 as “a Vickers” and to the FE2 as “a Vickers two-seater biplane”.

Immelmann’s death was a demoralising shock to both his Service and his nation. Determined that Boelcke, who was now a captain and still in the thick of the fighting, should not be the reason for further damage to pride and confidence, the Kaiser ordered him to be grounded and sent on a public relations tour of the Eastern Front.

A radical reorganisation of the German Air Service, to combat the Allies’ air superiority over the Somme, brought him back within two months. The flying units were to be renamed “Jagdstaffeln”, literally hunter squadrons — fighter squadrons, in fact — and their establishment was increased to fourteen aircraft. Jagdstaffel No. 1 existed only on paper, so the first to be formed was Jagdstaffel (shortened to “Jasta”) 2 and Boelcke was given command of it. While visiting the Eastern Front he had renewed acquaintance with Manfred von Richthofen, whom he had met in 1915 in the dining car of a train on which both were travelling on leave.

Boelcke at that time had four victories. Richthofen, who was still an observer, asked him how he did it. His reply was the same as Fonck or Navarre, Ball or Mannock, Rickenbacker or Baracca might have given: “Well, it’s quite simple. I fly close to my man and aim well, and then of course he falls down.”

“I have done that, Herr Oberleutnant, but my opponents don’t go down.”

“The reason is that you are in a large machine and I fly a Fokker monoplane.”’

Richthofen often recalled those words. On their second meeting he made such a good impression that Boelcke invited him to join Jasta 2.

The FE2B and D, the Gunbus and the Martinsyde Scout, before its relegation to bombing and reconnaissance in October 1915, had shot down many Fokkers, even though they in turn had suffered worse. The Sopwith two-seater 1 ½ – strutter, which the RAF and the RNAS began to receive in 1916, was the first Allied aircraft with a machinegun firing through the propeller arc. Initially, the Vickers-Challenger interrupter gear was fitted for the pilot’s gun, but was soon replaced by the Scarf-Dibovsky gear. Originally, also, the Lewis gun for the observer in his rear cockpit was on a Nieuport mounting: which was exchanged for the more efficient Scarff ring. But it was the DH2 that mastered the Fokker on the British Front, while the Nieuport II was doing the same in the French sector.

Not until a few months before the Somme Offensive did a British pilot first receive the same adulation in the press as Boelcke, Immelmann, Guynemer, Nungesser and Navarre. Albert Ball was nineteen years old when he joined No. 13 Squadron on 18th February 1916 to fly the BE2C, which was by now outclassed by practically every other aeroplane in the Flanders sky. Here was a young man who epitomised the most dangerous military material: sent out into the world straight from the strict discipline of boarding school, where he had been imbued with obedience, respect for authority, religious faith and the high ideals of bravery, patriotism and honour. It was not the lad who had been hardened by a life of deprivation in the back streets of an industrial city or London’s East End, in which he had had to survive by his wits, his resilience, his fists and his boots, who was potentially the most lethal in battle. It was the public school product who was potentially the readiest and most determined killer: instantly acquiescent to the orders of his superiors, made strong and healthy by compulsory games, cross-country runs, cold baths and a sensible diet; with a strong sense of responsibility and an awareness of a privileged upbringing that imposed obligations of leadership and self-sacrifice on him.

At this point it comes instantly to mind that the twenty most successful fighter pilots of the war include several Frenchmen and Germans who had never even heard of the British public school system. Britons such as Mannock and McCudden, and Canadians like Collishaw, Bishop and Barker had never set eyes on a boarding school of any kind. And if the fighting on the Austrian Front had been on a bigger scale, and if America had entered the war sooner, there would have been Italians and Americans with more than forty victories who were the product of very different systems of education from that of the British middle and upper classes, with its rigorous insistence on unquestioning obedience, Spartan conditions and frequent corporal punishment. Among the average sort of soldier, sailor or airmen, however, the ones who took most easily to obeying orders and putting on a brave face when their bowels were deliquescing with fear, which is the essential requirement in action, were those with a background like Ball’s. Autres temps, autres moeurs: we are considering a breed of an era long past.

Ball went from Trent College, in Nottinghamshire, into the Sherwood Foresters and transferred to the RFC on 29th January 1916. He had already learned to fly. While in camp on the outskirts of London in 1915, he had taken lessons at Hendon, airborne at first light so as to be back on parade at 6 a.m. Although 13 Squadron’s main task was artillery spotting, in April he enabled his observer to shoot down one hostile machine and force down two more. On 7th May he was posted to No. II Squadron, which had eight FE2Bs, four Vickers Fighters, three Bristol Scouts; and was being re-equipped with Nieuport IIs, of which three had arrived. It was on this last type that he began to score conspicuous successes.

His letters to his parents reveal his immaturity as well as his self-discipline and sense of duty. There is nothing in them to suggest the fighter pilot prowling about the sky like a predatory beast, powerful, menacing, confident. There is nothing in their style, either, that indicates an expensive education. Before leaving England: “I do hope that as you say, I shall come home fit and well, and work hard at my work, but one job at a time is enough for a boy of my age. I simply long to have a smack, but my turn is really a long time coming.”

On reaching his first squadron: “At last we are in for the sport and really look like having plenty of it. The machine I am flying is a BE2C, so I do not consider my luck very good, however I shall have a good smack. Oh! I can see heaps of sport ahead, but it really is mad sport.”

Three months later: “I must say that although my nerves are quite good, I really do want a rest from all this work. I can stand a lot, but really I have been coming on in leaps and bounds in the last few days, and it is just beginning to tell on me. I always feel tired. I have struck a topping lot of chaps in this squadron and they look after me fine. But they all think me young and call me John. Well, this is no hardship and I am really very happy.”

A few days after that, having scored his first solo victory: “Well, I have just come off my patrol on the new machine. You will be pleased to hear that I brought down a Hun Albatross [sic]. He was at 5000 over his lines. I was at 12,000. I dived down at him and put 120 shots into the machine after which he turned over and was completely done in.”

In July: “No. 13 has lost four machines and passengers in the past week and our squadron two, and four crashes. However, mad Lonely One is still going strong. They call me John the Lonely One now.”

He was already going off on his own to hunt the enemy. His maiden kill was made with a Nieuport II and is indicative of his skill. The Albatros was a fearsome recent arrival at the Front. A handful had appeared late the previous year and were now proliferating as a deadly successor to the Fokker. It carried two machineguns firing through the propeller, was faster and a better climber than the Fokker, but less nimble. The Nieuport IIs rate of climb and top speed were superior to the Fokker’s. But the Albatros D1 was the most beautiful aeroplane of its generation, as its successive marks were of theirs. The most hackneyed description of it was “sharklike”. In fact, it was torpedo shaped, the space between its upper and lower mainplanes was very narrow and it had the sweet, rakish, murderous lines that were unmatched until the Spitfire was seen in the sky more than twenty years later. It is an old axiom in the aviation industry that “if it looks right, it’ll fly right”. The Albatros amply confirmed this.

A faster Nieuport, the Mk 17, had come into service with the French and a very few had started to reach some British squadrons. No II had just received one and Ball was itching to take it up and make his next kill.

Air fighting falls into few categories. Descriptions of air combat become repetitious and tedious to read. Most actions consisted of one killing dive out of sun; a dive that missed and necessitated an immediate zoom with gun firing; a twisting, switchbacking duel between two adversaries; one aeroplane, or a section, outnumbered and fighting off concerted attacks. Ball’s favourite method was to stalk his victim patiently, slide up astern and beneath, and despatch him with a short burst from a Lewis gun mounted on the upper wing and pointing obliquely upwards. The machinegun on a Nieuport could be moved by hand on a Foster mounting, named after a sergeant on II Squadron who had designed it. This was a quadrant down which the gun was slid to facilitate changing the magazine. It could be returned to the horizontal, pointing dead ahead, or at any upward angle. Ball’s canny furtive approach was interestingly in contrast with his frankness of manner and straightforward attitude. It worked extremely well, although its practice evidently imposed considerable nervous tension on him.

His home letters divulge as much about his daily life, intimate emotions and combats as any second party could try to convey by going into details. To his father, l0th July: “You ask me to let the devils have it when I fight. Yes, I always do let them have all I can, but really I don’t think them devils. I only scrap because it is my duty, but I do not think anything bad about the Hun. He is just a good chap with very little guts.” This is not a judgment that all Allied Aircrew would have endorsed. “Nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down, but you can see it is either them or me, so I must do my best to make it a case of them.”’

18th July: “At night I was feeling quite rotten and my nerves were quite poo-poo. Naturally I cannot keep on for ever. So at night I went to see the CO and ask him if I could have a short rest.” The Major referred this to the Corps Commander, who ordered Ball detached to No 8 Squadron to fly BE2Cs: not only retrogressive after Nieuport 17s, but also highly dangerous. But Ball was lucky. Vindictive, ignorant and cruel though the General was, his failure to understand the mental strain imposed on fighting airmen might have been worse. The usual response to such a request was to send the pilot into the trenches. “This is the thanks after all my work …” Ball’s score had been mounting. “It is a cad’s trick.”

He soon asked to return to II. He was posted to No. 60, under Smith Barry, where he cultivated a garden outside his tent. “The peas are topping.” He had several crashes. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He wrote on 31st July: “Re rests, I am afraid that they are out of the question, for they don’t give you a rest unless you are quite a crock.” He forgot that 14th August was to be his twentieth birthday, until his parents sent him a present. Thanking them, he said he would be glad to be home for good.

29th August, to his mother: “A French major called to congratulate me yesterday. He says I have now got more Huns than any pilot out in France. They make it out to be sixteen crashed in eighty-four flights and also a balloon. The major had a long talk with me today. He is very pleased and says I may have leave. Oh! won’t it be AI. I do so want to leave all this beastly killing for a time.”

On 15th September he was in action again. At 3 p.m. he took off in a Nieuport armed with one fixed Lewis gun on an offensive patrol at 7000 feet. An Albatros, Type A, with guns front and rear, flying at an estimated 80 m.p.h., came in sight. Here is his Combat Report. “Albatros seen going south over Bapaume. Nieuport dived and fired one drum when within 50 yards after which the gun on the Nieuport came down and hit me on the head, preventing me from following the H.A. (hostile aircraft) down.” This was a hazard of the Foster mounting when firing at high elevation.

Later that evening he was up again, this time armed with Le Prieur rockets in addition to his Lewis gun. “Five Rolands seen over Bapaume in formation. Nieuport dived and fired rockets in order to break up formation. Formation was lost at once. Nieuport chased nearest machine and got under it, firing one drum at 20 yards. H.A. went down quite out of control and crashed N.E. of Bertincourt.”

These reports are made out in the name “Lieut. A. Ball, MC.”

Before his next fight, 21st September, his Distinguished Service Order was gazetted, to add to his Military Cross, for the Combat Report of that date is accredited to Lieut. A. Ball, DSO, MC. Decorations came more quickly than in 1939-45.

He met six Rolands flying at about 90 m.p.h. “H.A. seen N. of Bapaume in formation. Nieuport dived and fired rockets. Formation was lost. Nieuport got underneath nearest machine and fired a drum. H.A. dived and landed near railway. Nieuport then attacked another machine and fired two drums from underneath. H.A. went down and was seen to crash at side of railway. After this the rest of the H.A. followed the Nieuport towards the lines and the Nieuport turned and fired remainder of ammunition after which it returned to the aerodrome for more. Second machine was seen to crash by Lieut. Walters.”

On 25th September he ran into two formations of Rolands and Type A Albatroses, and saw them both off. “Nieuport could not see any H.A. over Bapaume at a reasonable height, so it went along the Cambrai road. After being there for a few minutes, two formations came along. Nieuport attacked the first. The H.A. ran with noses down, but, when another formation came near it turned towards the Nieuport. The Nieuport fired one drum to scatter the formation after which it turned to change drums. One of the drums dropped into the rudder control and for a few seconds the Nieuport was out of control.

“Nieuport succeeded in getting drum on gun and attacked an Albatros which was then flying at its side. Nieuport fired 90 rounds 1 in 3 Buckingham at about 15 yards range underneath H.A. H.A. went down quite out of control and crashed. The remainder of H.A. followed Nieuport, but in the end left. In order to keep them off at a safe range Nieuport kept turning towards them. Each time this was done H.A. made off with noses down.”

Combat at so close a range risked collision, or his own aeroplane catching fire when he set alight to an enemy with Buckingham incendiary rounds.

He had been promoted. This report is by “Capt. A. Ball, DSO, MC.”

On 18th September, between whiles, he had written most touchingly to his father: “Oh, you did make my leave a topper, and if I live to be a hundred I shall never wish for a more happy time.”

He would not live to be twenty-one.

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