WWI RFC Vickers FB5 Gun Bus two seat pusher fighter. The classic WW1 counter to the ‘Fokker Scourge’
Christmas 1914 is famous as the one when enemy soldiers climbed out of their trenches for a game of football, but it should also be famous as the first time that an aircraft designed as a fighter went into action. It was on the home front, too.
After only a few months of war, everyone recognised the notion of fighter aircraft as a separate type, ideally single-seater, fast, nippy, that could outmanoeuvre slower, less nimble enemies and give them the deadly burst. Two years previously, the Admiralty commission to Vickers to come up with a fighting aircraft had not quite resulted in that ideal because, with no other choice that they could see, the designers had gone with a two-seater pusher format.
The FB5 is usually thought to have been the first British aeroplane purpose-made to carry a gun, but there are other candidates. Sopwith produced a Gun-Carrying Seaplane, also a pusher, which was delivered to the Naval Wing sometime in the summer of 1913 with a .303 machine gun in the front cockpit; but it was not highly regarded, and neither were the gunless versions. Avro designed a twin-engined seaplane gun-carrier that was not delivered. One example of the land-based derivative of the Sopwith, the 80mph Sopwith Type 806 Gunbus (first flight October 1914), was briefly in France with the RNAS in February 1915 but there is no record of any action.
That the Vickers FB5 was the result of the first fighter-aircraft commission cannot be doubted, as the others surely came along after the Admiralty started the idea, and the ultimate distinction of the first incident of a designated fighter aircraft flying at the enemy also belongs with the Vickers FB5.
It came about because the Germans decided to bomb mainland Britain. They chose 24 December 1914 for the first unfriendly bomb ever to be dropped on British soil, and not by a Zeppelin, as everyone expected, but by hand from an aeroplane.
British soil’ were the right words on that Christmas Eve morning. At about 11am, one German craft dropped (or threw, as they usually termed it) one bomb into the vegetable garden of Mr T A Terson of Dover, making a hole ten feet wide and four feet deep, breaking windows in several nearby houses and scattering Brussels sprouts and winter cabbages everywhere. A man up a tree in the garden next door was blown from it but landed softly in some bushes. A young chap, a solicitor’s son called Mowll, said he was 25 yards away talking to a friend when the bomb exploded, covering him and friend in earth.
The identity of the raider is open to some question. One source firmly suggests a navy float-plane, a Friedrichshafen FF29; civilian eye-witness accounts state equally firmly it was a Taube, looking ‘like a big seagull’. In any case, it dropped its load and flew away.
Next day, Christmas Day, another raider invaded Britain, again identified in one report as a Friedrichshafen FF29 but described from the ground as an Albatros. It was spotted near Sheerness but disappeared into the clouds and fog, to emerge between Purfleet and Erith, well up the Thames, beyond where the Dartford crossing now is, triggering anti-aircraft fire from pom-pom guns on roofs and the scrambling of three RFC aircraft. This was it; the first use of a fighter.
An aerial battle of sorts ensued, as the German crew fled with only their rifle and pistols to protect them, pursued by the home team, at least one of which, according to the papers, had ‘a quick-firing gun’.
That was the Vickers Gunbus, which had taken off from Joyce Green aerodrome at Dartford.
Whichever German aircraft it was, the FF29 or the Albatros, top speed was about the same at around 60mph (95kph). The FB5 Gunbus was a little faster and it caught the German up, got near enough to fire, but fame and glory were denied. The gun jammed.
More British machines were reported as gaining on the German as it flew down the Thames, on the way dropping two bombs on Cliffe, a village on the Hoo peninsula overlooking the Thames marshes. This lightened the load but, if it was a last-minute attempt on a useful target such as the cement works there, it missed.
By the time the quarry and the hunters were past Southend, the mist and cloud had intervened and the excitement was over.
The first Vickers FB5 in France was delivered to No. 2 Squadron of the RFC in February 1915. The Gunbus was better than anything the Germans had but there were only a few, fifty or sixty arrived during the whole year, so you could not say that the Entente exactly had air supremacy, even in the short few months before the Germans’ secret weapon suddenly appeared. After that, for another short time, the Gunbus remained the best the Entente had, if not good enough.
Fighter ace Major Fred Powell of 5 Squadron, or, more accurately, his observer Air Mechanic Shaw, presumably co-opted for the ride, shot down and destroyed one German aircraft confirmed in the FB5 and one more driven down. He had six more victories unconfirmed before he moved on to the Royal Aircraft Factory FE8 (90mph single-seater) to finish with six definites and nine possibles. Big scores were not made in Farman-style pushers.
Meanwhile, the RFC had got around to forming the first squadron officially designated for fighting, but No. 11 Squadron didn’t arrive in France, at St Omer, until July 1915. It was not just the first fighter squadron; it was the first RFC squadron to be fully equipped from the start with aircraft all of one type, the FB5 Gunbus, which was still a fearsome opponent for those Germans flying the 60mph Albatros B1 and B2, the similarly slow Aviatik B1, Taube, LVG B1 and the later C models of Albatros and Aviatik.
It was an FB5 that carried Lieutenant Gilbert Insall to a Victoria Cross and a victory over an Aviatik biplane, probably a B2.
From The London Gazette, December 22 1915, this is Insall’s citation:
For most conspicuous bravery, skill and determination, on 7 November 1915, in France. He was patrolling in a Vickers Fighting Machine, with First Class Air Mechanic T. H. Donald as gunner, when a German machine was sighted, pursued, and attacked near Achiet.
The German pilot led the Vickers machine over a rocket battery, but with great skill Lieutenant Insall dived and got to close range, when Donald fired a drum of cartridges into the German machine, stopping its engine. The German pilot then dived through a cloud, followed by Lieutenant Insall. Fire was again opened, and the German machine was brought down heavily in a ploughed field 4 miles south-east of Arras.
On seeing the Germans scramble out of their machine and prepare to fire, Lieutenant Insall dived to 500 feet, thus enabling Donald to open heavy fire on them. The Germans then fled, one helping the other, who was apparently wounded. Other Germans then commenced heavy fire, but in spite of this, Lieutenant Insall turned again, and an incendiary bomb was dropped on the German machine, which was last seen wreathed in smoke. Lieutenant Insall then headed west in order to get back over the German trenches, but as he was at only 2,000 feet altitude he dived across them for greater speed, Donald firing into the trenches as he passed over.
The German fire, however, damaged the petrol tank, and, with great coolness, Lieutenant Insall landed under cover of a wood 500 yards inside our lines. The Germans fired some 150 shells at our machine on the ground, but without causing material damage. Much damage had, however, been caused by rifle fire, but during the night it was repaired behind screened lights, and at dawn Lieutenant Insall flew his machine home with First Class Air Mechanic T. H. Donald as a passenger.
Donald was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the other-ranks equivalent of the DSO, some recognition of his own coolness while repairing, at night, under shell fire, the machine his pilot had flown much too close to the trenches and, we must assume, during the decidedly hairy take-off next morning.
Before he could tot up enough victims to be classed as an ace, Insall was shot down again, wounded, taken prisoner, escaped at the third attempt, and served as a Group Captain in the Second World War.