Aces – World War I Part I

The entry of the United States into the war had thrown the German press into a fervour of expected imminent subjugation by armed multitudes and, from the air, by immense air fleets. The Government and High Command, better informed, knew that many months must pass before America could assemble and train an effective army and air force. Spring 1918, when it was logical to expect the next Allied offensive, was the time for which Germany was preparing. The General Officer Commanding the Luftstreitkräfte knew that, with America’s great resources in manpower, materials and wealth, when she did go fully into battle, it would be in mighty strength. He accordingly, in mid-1917, drew up a plan to prepare the Air Service for the coming onslaught. This he called Das Amerika Programm.

On the British side, Lieutenant General Sir David Henderson, Military Aeronautics Directorate, expressed his realistic appreciation of aerial warfare and his meticulous accuracy in a paper to the CIGS dated l0th January 1918. He comments, on the publicity automatically given to French pilots when they qualified as “Aces”.

“1. ‘Mastery of the Air’ is not a suitable expression to describe any degree of air superiority. No superiority can be sufficient to ensure that hostile aircraft will not break through on a limited offensive. It is hoped that, with the co-operation of America, our present superiority may be maintained and considerably increased.

“2. The British intend to continue the policy of an air offensive against military objectives in Germany. The name that is applied to these operations does not matter.

“3. The two policies are not quite accurately stated. The French announcements refer to the most successful fighting (i.e. fighter) pilots. ‘The best flying men’ may be employed on more important operations than fighting (i.e. flying fighters). The British system is not to conceal the names and records of flying men, but to publish them after they have been examined and approved by the Commander-in-Chief and the King. My own opinion is that the British policy is the better, both as a matter of justice and as tending to keep up the level of efficiency throughout the Force whatever work the pilot may be engaged on.

“4. No amount of superiority, in number or in quality of machines and pilots, can hope to secure absolute mastery of the air, nor can even a dominant position be assured unless the organisation of the Force and the spirit and skill of the pilots keep pace with the provision of mechanical appliances.”

The sentiment about justice in his third paragraph is admirable, but he overlooks the equal merit and claim to recognition of observers and aerial gunners.

There are two points to make about Henderson and General Hugh Trenchard, Chief of the Royal Air Force in which the attitudes they took differed from those customarily attributed to them. The DH4’s successor, the DH9, also a two-seater bomber, was intended for long-range bombing. Geoffrey de Havilland was uneasy about this: its performance was not adequate and would put the crews’ lives in jeopardy. He said it should not be put to this task.

Henderson demurred. “It may be inadvisable to attempt any bombing until a better machine is produced, by which time again the German machines may also have improved. If the DH9 is fit for day bombing, then the more of them we use the better.”

Trenchard totally disagreed and put his point with witty sarcasm. “I want to bomb Germany, but please remember that if we lose half our machines doing so, the good morale effect which is three-quarters of the work will be on the German side and not ours.”

Trenchard had been knighted in the New Year Honours List. Henderson was no longer at the War Office. He had moved to the newly formed Air Ministry as Deputy Chairman of the Air Council, and 1st April 1918 had been set as the date for the amalgamation of the RNAS and RFC into the Royal Air Force.

Political pressure of the shabbiest sort had been exerted on Trenchard to induce him to return to England and become Chief of Air Staff. Like Henderson, three years earlier, he put the good of the Service before his own advancement and would have preferred to remain in France. Insistence by Lord Northcliffe and his brother, Lord Rothermere, both newspaper-owners with huge political power, proved too high and he had to accept the promotion. As Henderson had done, he left the field for an office desk. His place was taken by Sir John Salmond.

By March, Trenchard, sickened by further political intrigue, resigned. He was astonished when the man chosen to replace him proved to be Sykes. He was offered the choice of three new appointments, but elected a fourth: command of an enlarged bomber force to be stationed in France.

None of these basic changes made any noticeable practical difference to the lives of the aircrews at the Western or Italian Fronts.

The annual winter reduction in air activity ended with the great German offensive that began on 21st March. By then the Luftstreitkräfte had grown to 153 Fliegerabteilungen, 80 Jastas, 38 Schlastas, and 24 Bombengeschwader that comprised 24 Staffeln.

Of these, pitted against the RFC were 49 Fliegerabteilungen, 35 Jastas, 27 Schlastas and 4 Bombengeschwader: 730 aircraft, of which 326 were single-seater fighters.

Ranged against these the RFC had 579 aircraft serviceable, 261 of them single-seater fighters. The fighters were mostly SE5as and Camels. There were five Bristol Fighter squadrons and one flying the Sopwith Dolphin.

The RFC’s air activity preliminary to the offensive consisted of bombing enemy airfields, and targets that would impede troop movements: railways, bridges, roads. Many fighters were sent on low-level bombing raids. The RFC C-in-C, as always, took it for granted that aggression would overcome the defence. The Luftstreitkräfte, also as usual, relied on well-planned defensive tactics. The British casualties, although the Staff appeared not to recognise the fact, proved heavier than the enemy’s.

March 18th saw a battle between five DH4s escorted by twenty-four Camels and SE5As, against thirty Albatroses, Pfalzes and Fokker Triplanes led by Richtfhofen, plus eight Staffeln flying the same variety of fighters. Badly outnumbered, the British did well to lose no more than two DH4s, two SE5As and five Camels. But it was a heavy defeat nevertheless: the Germans lost one Albatros.

The offensive began in poor weather, with fog that hampered flying. The Germans’ initial advance drove many squadrons to retreat on the second and third days to aerodromes further behind the line. Naval 5’s base was shelled and some of the squadrons, including Sholto Douglas’s 84, moved with only an hour or two to spare before the enemy overran them.

Eighty-four Squadron had been strafing day after day. It was a rich time for Beauchamp-Proctor. He had shot down his first enemy aircraft, a reconnaissance type, on 3rd January. He got his first fighter, a Fokker Triplane, on 17th February and soon shot down four more fighters and was given an MC. On 1st April 1918, the day on which the RAF came into being, he was promoted to captain and given command of a flight.

Sholto Douglas insisted on his squadron operating in three flights of five aeroplanes and staying in formation. The individualists objected to this, and he issued an order that no one was to break formation to snatch an easy chance to shoot down an enemy. The initiative for any attack must come from the leader. As this would be the most experienced pilot, he had the best prospect of shooting down the chosen victim. W. T. M. McCudden followed the same system. This style of fighting aroused resentment and jealousy. Some of the other pilots objected that the leader scored most of the kills while they guarded him. The leaders pointed out that most new pilots were shot down when a formation broke up. The way to give them experience was for all to hold formation, with the raw men guarded by the experienced, who also protected the leader.

McCudden had ended 1917 with two dazzling displays of marksmanship and the style of flying that combat demanded. On 23rd December he shot down four hostiles, and on the 28th he shot down three LVGs in twenty minutes. The first of these he took by surprise from astern and below; and afterwards wrote: “I hate to shoot a Hun down without his seeing me, for although this method is in accordance with my doctrine, it is against what little sporting instincts I have left.” The second one, he destroyed at a range of 400 yards. He said he knew this estimate would be disputed, but was adamant about his accuracy in judging range. Most pilots, he said, underestimated the range at which they opened fire, and novices usually fired their first bursts from twice the distance they thought they were from their target. This was often said in the 1939-45 war, with equal truth, and was a frequent topic of squadron and flight commanders’ observations on newcomers in action.

Being an ex-mechanic, McCudden was very conscious of the disparity between the performance of aircraft of similar type. He had lately been irritated to see Rumplers passing him when above 15,000 feet, and found out that their original engine had been replaced by a more powerful one. A new engine was being put into the SE5A, and he obtained a set of high-compression pistons for it. “I was very keen to see the Rumpler pilots’ hair stand on end as I climbed past them like a helicopter.” What is as interesting as his attention to mechanical detail is the fact that he knew the word “helicopter”. None had yet been built and he did not live to see their advent.

He had the strict and intolerant views about some matters that probably arose from his training as a regular ranker. On 24th January he shot down an artillery-spotting DFW at 12,000 feet. “This crew deserved to die, because they had no notion whatever of how to defend themselves. Which showed that during their training they had been slack and lazy. They probably liked going to Berlin too often instead of sticking to their training and learning as much as they could. I had no sympathy for those fellows.” This was his forty-third victory.

But he could also be admiring. On patrol, he saw a DFW two-seater and led his flight onto it. It was below cloud, at 4000 feet, so he detached his companions to wait above cloud in case it escaped him and went down to engage it. His Vickers was out of action, so he fired his Lewis. For five minutes he fought the enemy down to 500 feet. “At last I broke off the combat, for the Hun was too good for me and had shot me about a lot. Had I persisted he certainly would have got me, for there was not a trick he didn’t know, and so I gave that liver-coloured DFW best.” There was an Albatros with a green tail whose pilot he had often seen in action, displaying great skill and shooting down British aircraft, including some of McCudden’s squadron. One day his flight met a patrol led by Green-tail and McCudden put a burst into him. The Albatros burst into flames. The German pilot had tumbled out “and was hurtling to destruction faster than his machine. I now flew on to the next Albatros and shot him down at once. I must say the pilot of the green-tailed Albatros must have been a very fine fellow. I had many times had cause to admire his fighting qualities. I only hope it was my first bullet which killed him.”

On 16th February he again shot down four. At the beginning of March he was posted home, where he was promoted to major. In April his Victoria Cross was gazetted.

On 8th July he was appointed to command 60 Squadron, one of the best. The following day, when he took off to join it, his engine stopped; and, going against standard procedure, he turned back. The aeroplane stalled into the ground and he was killed. He had scored fifty-seven victories.

Edward Mannock, by this time, with an MC and bar, had spent some months in England instructing, and flying FE2s on wireless testing. On a chance meeting in London with Henderson he had been outspoken about his boredom and frustration. In consequence, he was posted early in March to 74 Squadron, which was working up for the Front, as a flight commander. He set about making himself noticed by organising sing-songs in the officers’ mess, leading at the top of his voice and “playing” with drumsticks on a collection of cans, tankards, pots, pans and glasses tied to the back of a chair.

The squadron arrived in France on 1st April 1918. His approach to fighting was highly analytical and — in keeping with his boring conversational style — he used to subject his pilots to a thorough and helpful analysis of every engagement. He was an inveterate do-gooder and busybody, but kind with it. One of his many concerns about his inexperienced pilots was with the effect on them of seeing aircraft shot down. In those days of easy conflagration and no parachutes, this could rapidly unnerve a new man to the point where he was soon a candidate for admission to one of Henderson’s hospitals for psychiatric treatment; and that was crude enough in itself to excite all sorts of new traumas. Mannock’s own mental state was none too well balanced. He soon became obsessed by the sight and stench of burning aeroplanes and of the men in them. One accident gave his growing insanity a shove closer to the edge of disintegration, and his nose a close-up, when a comrade crashed on the aerodrome and was incinerated.

One evening, after Cairns, a particular friend, had been killed, he was in great distress and mental turmoil. He announced that the mess must give Cairns “a good send-off”. After the usual rowdy games he rose to make a speech. “To Captain Cairns and the last dead Hun. Sod the Huns.” It was probably the best such oration of the war: brief, full of feeling and apposite. Next morning he was jovial once more: classically manic-depressive.

On 18th June, while on leave, he was awarded a second bar to his DSO and made a major. Posted to command 85 Squadron, he went first to say goodbye to 74. In the mess that evening he broke down and cried. It was his frank revelation of his feelings that endeared him as much as it often annoyed.

He found morale on 85 low. His predecessor, Billy Bishop, was a loner instead of a leader. He interviewed each pilot and got rid of those whom he found suspect. Three were Americans, all of whom he kept: Elliott White Springs, Larry Callaghan and John Grider. He began at once to teach his squadron to fight as a team and his pilots were immediately inspired with eagerness. The first time he took them out to fight, he selected three to go with him as decoys. Two other flights followed at different altitudes above. At 8.20 p.m. Mannock sighted ten Fokker DVIIs approaching. He dived with his other decoys and the enemy followed. When he signalled, five of the flight next above also went for the Fokkers. Then the third flight came down and took them by surprise. The fight began at 16,000 feet and ended at 2000 feet. Mannock’s squadron had no losses. The Germans lost five aircraft, of which Mannock shot down two.

When he heard of McCudden’s death he became more neurotic, depressed and full of forebodings about his own end. To assuage his fears he indulged in a week of solo sorties. He attacked every enemy he saw and could reach. After a week of hysterical destructiveness he seemed calmer. He now became obsessive about the neatness of his turnout. He talked openly about having a strong premonition of death: hardly the way to encourage his subordinates.

He invited a friend to lunch soon after equalling Bishop’s score of seventy-two. The friend said there would be a red-carpet reception for him after the war. Mannock did not think so: “There won’t be any after the war for me.” Later, when his guest mentioned a flamer he had shot down, Mannock asked: “Did you hear the swine screaming? That’s the way they’ll get you if you’re not careful.” The RAF has a tradition of black humour, but not of morbidity. “When it comes, don’t forget to blow your brains out.” The reluctant laughter at this gruesome “joke” soon stopped when Mannock described a burning aeroplane: many pilots carried a revolver to commit suicide if they were going down on fire.

He was shot down soon after, with the top RFC/RAF score of seventy-three; and given a posthumous VC.

Edward Mannock, who was the most successful British fighter pilot of that war, and second among the Allies, with only two fewer kills than the Frenchman, Fonck, who topped the list, had not even joined the RFC in 1915, although he was in his twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth years.

His antecedents for becoming a pilot, let alone one of such eminence, or an officer, were unpromising.

Born on 24th May 1887, he was the son of a regular soldier, a drunken Irish corporal in the Royal Scots Greys and later in the 5th Dragoon Guards, whose own father, of all incongruous occupations for one with such progeny, had been editor of a Fleet Street newspaper.

At the age of ten, in India, Edward Mannock went blind in both eyes for two weeks, from a dust-borne amoebic infection. He recovered his sight, but there was corneal damage to his left eye, whose vision remained poor. His brutal sot of a father used to taunt him about his eyesight and tell him he would never be a real man, i.e., a soldier. He found that a determined show of aggression was enough to unnerve the bully. When his father threatened to beat him and advanced with raised fist, the boy did not shelter behind his mother, but stepped forward, inwardly quaking, to confront the man, who would desist. He said it proved to him that even a bogus display of fearlessness discouraged an adversary.

After the Boer War, Corporal Mannock, having served his time, was unemployed. When he had spent all that he and his wife had scraped together, he deserted her and their three children. The boy Edward had to go to work: first for a greengrocer, at two shillings and sixpence a week, then for a barber at five shillings. In 1903 he became a clerk in the National Telephone Company. Three years later he transferred to the Engineering Department as a labourer, which meant climbing telegraph poles to repair wires in all weathers. He also joined the Territorial Army, in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and rose to sergeant.

He was a ranting, proselytising Socialist, which was not surprising in view of the penurious circumstances of his youth. But he was also deeply patriotic to Britain, despite his Irish ancestry, and would verbally attack anyone who expressed anti-monarchist or anti-British sentiments.

Taken by an urge to go abroad, he sailed for Turkey on 9th February 1914, in the hope of finding work in a new cable-laying operation there. He did so and was made a supervisor.

When war broke out Germany began to negotiate an alliance with Turkey, but the work of building new telephone exchanges and laying cables went on. In November, the British Ambassador and his staff returned to England. Germans were in control and all British expatriates were declared prisoners of war. The Turks arrested them and imprisoned them in a communal cell. They intended to deport the prisoners, but the Germans objected. After Mannock and others had made several attempts to escape, the British were moved to a concentration camp.

Mannock, who had led his companions in hammering on the cell door and singing, now arranged that a Turkish visitor, who had worked for him, would cut the wire and get him out of the window every night to go and buy food for them all. He was caught and put in solitary confinement. He was as persistent a nuisance to his captors as that other great pilot and leader, Douglas Bader, some thirty years later.

Thanks to American intervention the British were repatriated in January 1915. Mannock arrived emaciated and ill with malaria, another legacy from childhood years in India.

His closest friend, Jim Eyles, a civilian and militant Socialist, described Mannock’s intense hatred of the Germans. “When I told him of the most recent actions, especially the German gas attacks, his blood ran hot. Even his waxy complexion could not conceal it. His face reddened and I saw his knuckles growing white as he clenched and unclenched his fists in a growing fury.” Fellow prisoners also said that he had declared the intention to “get into the Army and kill as many of the swine as possible”.

In July 1915 he rejoined the RAMC and was soon a sergeant again. He thought that his comrades lacked aggressive spirit, but if they understood more about Germany and Turkey, they would acquire it. He used to harangue them about this. When demonstrating how to treat wounded, his lectures were lurid. He described front line dressing stations in gruesome detail — mud, filth, enemy bombardment, blood and mangled limbs — which whipped up his own imagination at the same time. When it occurred to him that he might have to attend to a German battle casualty, the idea so repelled him that he went to his CO and asked for a transfer to the Royal Engineers as an officer cadet. Nobody, not even himself, would have suspected, as 1915 drew to its close, that Edward Mannock, known, on account of his Irish birth, as “Mick”, would go down in history as perhaps the best fighter leader of the Great War.

James McCudden, who was later to be one of Mannock’s flying instructors, and to spot him as a future star performer, was still waiting to be released from his duties as a sergeant air mechanic and air observer, to go on a pilot’s course, when 1915 came to its end. In July he had been home on ten days’ leave, after eleven months at the Front without even one day off duty. On his return, he was employed more as an observer than as a technician and had some comments to make on some pilots that reveal as much about himself as about them.

In September 1915 C Flight of No. 3 Squadron had four officer pilots and one sergeant pilot. There were four officer observers, one corporal; and Sergeant McCudden, who recorded, after a short flight with Lieutenant Ridley: “I did not enjoy it much, for the pilot was one of the most dashing and enterprising kind. Such flying is all very fine for the pilot, but not always for the passenger.”

McCudden had a different opinion of Major Ludlow-Hewitt, the squadron commander. On 13th December 1915, artillery spotting at 7000 feet, they were under constant anti-aircraft fire for two hours. “I can see the pilot now,” he recorded three years later, “tapping away at his key, with a shell bursting out on a wingtip and then one just ahead, not flicking an eyelid, and not attempting to turn or avoid the numerous shells that were continually bursting. As for myself, I was in a terrible state of funk, as I could do nothing but keep a look out for enemy machines, and watch the ‘Archie’ bursts.”

At the end of December he noted: “By now, having flown a good deal with Major Hewitt, I intensely disliked ever going up with anyone else, for I can assure you that I knew when I was flying with a safe pilot, and I had now so much faith in him that if he had said ‘Come to Berlin,’ I should have gone like a shot.” An airman’s view of what makes a safe pilot is not perhaps understood by others; Ludlow-Hewitt had subjected him to two hours of intense danger at least once.

It was also in December, in an L type Morane-Saulnier, that he had his first encounter with a Fokker firing through its propeller. It approached head-on and above. There was no gun mounting on the Morane for firing over the propeller, so he had to shoulder the Lewis gun: which demanded a fair amount of strength at that height, with the lungs short of oxygen, and at any altitude with the aircraft pitching and swaying. He fired as the Fokker flew overhead and past on the right. It came in again from astern and beneath. He told Captain Harvey-Kelly, his pilot, to turn, then shot at their attacker again. “The Fokker appeared rather surprised that we had seen him, and immediately turned off to my left rear as I was facing the tail.” Next, it climbed 300 feet above and dived to fire, but pulled out at once when McCudden let fly with the Lewis. It retired to a distance of 500 yards and withdrew there each time it came close and was met with a burst.

That was the first air fight of a man who won the VC, DSO and MC in the next three years. It made his successful repelling of the Fokker all the more remarkable that its pilot was the redoubtable Max Immelmann.

Major Edward “Mick” Mannock of the RFC was the godfather of modern air tactics on the Allied side in the First World War. Rather than counting on luck and natural skill in air combat, Mannock applied scientific principles to the task. His cardinal rule, still taught to fighter pilots today: “Always above, seldom on the same level, never underneath.” To Mannock, height was the ultimate advantage in air combat.

While governments were establishing air forces, Mannock developed a set of principles that were shared with all new Allied pilots. The goal was to keep them alive longer.

  1. Pilots must dive to attack with zest, and must hold their fire until they get within one hundred yards of their target.
  2. Achieve surprise by approaching from the East. (From the German side of the front.)
  3. Utilize the sun’s glare and clouds to achieve surprise.
  4. Pilots must keep physically fit by exercise and the moderate use of stimulants.
  5. Pilots must sight their guns and practice as much as possible, as targets are normally fleeting.
  6. Pilots must practice spotting machines in the air and recognizing them at long range, and every aeroplane is to be treated as an enemy until it is certain it is not.
  7. Pilots must learn where the enemy’s blind spots are.
  8. Scouts must be attacked from above and two-seaters from beneath their tails.
  9. Pilots must practice quick turns, as this maneuver is more used than any other in a fight.
  10. Pilots must practice judging distances in the air, as these are very deceptive.
  11. Decoys must be guarded against — a single enemy is often a decoy — therefore the air above should be searched before attacking.
  12. If the day is sunny, machines should be turned with as little bank as possible; otherwise the sun glistening on the wings will give away their presence at a long range.
  13. Pilots must keep turning in a dog fight and never fly straight except when firing.
  14. Pilots must never, under any circumstances, dive away from an enemy, as he gives his opponent a non-deflection shot — bullets are faster than aeroplanes.
  15. Pilots must keep their eye on their watches during patrols, and on the direction and strength of the wind.

Mannock’s Rules were so well-respected that young fighter pilots were still being taught them in flight school in the Second World War. Further, a number of British aces of the Second World War publicly commented that, while aircraft technology had changed by 1939, many of Mannock’s principles still held true.

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